What impact are ultra-processed diets having on our planet?

Thought LeadersFernanda MarrocosPh.D. CandidateUniversity of Sao Paulo
In this interview, we speak to Fernanda Marrocos from the University of Sao Paulo about her latest research that investigated the impacts ultra-processed diets are having on our planet. 

Please could you introduce yourself and tell us what inspired your latest research on global diets and planetary health?

My name is Fernanda Marrocos and I am a Ph.D. candidate in Global Health and Sustainability at the University of Sao Paulo (USP). I have a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and a master’s degree in Public Health and acted as Policy Research Officer to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition Secretariat, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine between (2015-2018). I am currently a Researcher at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (Nupens/USP) and act as an Independent Consultant on the topics of food and nutrition security and sustainable food systems. 

Our main motivation to write this commentary was to shed light on the contribution of 'global diets' characterized by a high intake of ultra-processed foods to agrobiodiversity loss and to highlight the complete absence of such discussions in global food systems summits, biodiversity conventions, and climate change conferences, particularly in the UN Food Systems Summit, the UN Biodiversity Conference and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which took place in late 2021.

The publication of the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines in 2014 also served as an inspiration to our research group. This document was one of the first food-based dietary guidelines to recognize the potentially harmful effects of the increased production and consumption of ultra-processed foods on biodiversity. However, further research was needed to advance this agenda. Therefore, this commentary marks the beginning of a new research line in our research group to explore the environmental impacts of ultra-processed diets, including the impacts on agricultural biodiversity. 

Planetary Health

Image Credit: Khongtham/Shutterstock.com

With our planet changing at an alarming rate, how have consumer habits and diets changed over the last 20 years and what impact is this having on our planet?

We have been facing two main transitions over the last decades which characterize 'global diets' that may directly affect human and planetary health: the increasing intake of animal-sourced foods and ultra-processed foods, at the expense of minimally processed, plant-sourced foods. Although the impact of the former has been acknowledged and started to gather global attention more recently, the environmental impacts of ultra-processed diets have been largely neglected.

Ultra-processed foods are ‘formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes’ and contain little or no whole foods. They are typically manufactured using ingredients extracted from a handful of plant species, including maize, wheat, soy, and oilseed crops. These crops are largely chosen by food manufacturers because they are cheap to produce and high-yielding, which means that they can be produced in large volumes. Also, animal-derived ingredients used in many ultra-processed foods are sourced from animals that rely on the same crops as feed.

The homogeneity of agricultural landscapes linked with the intensive use of cheap standardized ingredients is negatively affecting the cultivation and consumption of long-established plant food sources, including rich varieties of grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, commonly produced by agro biodiverse production systems. Besides, some ingredients such as cocoa, sugar, and some vegetable oils – commonly used in ultra-processed foods – are also strongly associated with biodiversity loss. 

Ultra-processed foods are becoming increasingly common in diets. What is meant by the term ‘ultra-processed’ and why have we seen an increase in their consumption over recent years?

Humans have been processing food for a long time (at least 1.8 million years). Industrial processes such as roasting, drying, grinding and other techniques made food more nutritious, tasty, and durable, so processing itself is not the main problem. The type of processing that became more problematic is one that is more extensive and uses new physical and chemical techniques. This is called food 'ultra-processing', which has emerged with the purpose of increasing profits of transnational food and beverage corporations through hyper-palatable and convenient food products.

The dominance of ultra-processed foods in the global food supply has been mainly driven by the industrialization of food systems, technological change, and globalization, including the expansion and growing market and political power of transnational food and beverage corporations, and their global sourcing and production networks. As "Big Food" globalizes, their advertising and promotion strategies have become widespread, as well as their products. Developments in the retail sector (e.g. supermarkets) have also contributed to growing and diversifying ultra-processed food markets, particularly in emerging markets such as Latina America, Africa, and Asia.

Where supermarkets do not exist, other distribution strategies are used by food and beverage corporations (e.g. the use of a “door-to-door” salesforce by Nestlé to reach thousands of poor households in Brazil’s urban slums). It is not by chance that these products already account for more than half of the energy intake in the USA and the UK; more than a third of the energy intake in Australia and France and are rising rapidly in lower-income countries within Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In your latest research, you look at the impact global diets are having on our planet. Can you describe how you carried out your latest research and what you discovered?

This commentary was written in parallel to the UN Food Systems Summit, the UN Biodiversity Conference, and the UN Climate Change Conference which took place in late 2021. After conducting a literature review and analyzing main documents that were prepared in advance and subsequent to those events (e.g. the Zero draft of the Biodiversity Conference), the authors found that despite the very rapid rise of ultra-processed foods in human diets, the calamitous effects of these products to agrobiodiversity was being completely overlooked.

For instance, in the Zero Draft of the United Nations Biodiversity Conference 2021, ultra-processed foods were not once mentioned, and there was not even a reference to the impact of the global industrial food system on biodiversity loss. Similarly, the UN Food Systems Summit Action Track 2 (Shifting to Sustainable Consumption) and the subsequent solutions and coalitions (e.g. Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems for Children and all Coalition) identified animal-sourced foods, and foods high in fat, salt, sugar, as issues of concern, but made little reference to food processing, and said nothing about ultra-processed foods or its environmental impact.

Also, preliminary findings from an ongoing study (part of my Ph.D. thesis) conducted with data from the Brazilian Household Budget Survey (2017– 2018) to investigate the impacts of different patterns of food acquisition on the diversity of plant species used in their production demonstrated that household food baskets with a higher content of ultra-processed foods were associated with significantly poorer agricultural biodiversity. Such findings, reinforce the messages we included in our commentary.

Processed Food

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There is a lot of information regarding the impacts these diets are having on human health, but there is limited information surrounding their impact on planetary health. Why is this and what more should people, governments, and policymakers be doing to help raise awareness surrounding this?

Some factors may be contributing to this scenario. One of them is the incipience (or even absence) of studies investigating the effects of ultra-processed diets on agrobiodiversity. Our research group intends to explore these aspects in the coming years. Another point may be related to what the Lancet commission has called policy inertia, that is, the combined effect of inadequate political leadership and governance to tackle the Global Syndemic (the coexistence of three pandemics: obesity, undernutrition, and climate change). Among the main barriers to breaking this policy inertia and the inaction of intergovernmental organizations is the influence of large commercial interests of powerful corporations, such as the transnational food and beverage corporations.

The bottom line is that we need to reshape the modern, globalized food system urgently. First, relevant policymakers at all levels need to recognize the calamitous effects of ultra-processed foods on both human and planetary health. Second, researchers, professional and civil society organizations, and citizen action groups should urge national governments to use different policy strategies (e.g. fiscal measures, food procurement policies) to promote the production, accessibility, and consumption of a rich variety of fresh or minimally processed foods, and to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Every year, the World Health Organization celebrates World Health Day on the 7th of April. The theme for this year is ‘Our Planet, Our Health’. What does this message mean to you and why is it important to raise awareness of how the health of our planet affects our own personal health?

This is a very powerful message and is closely aligned with the points we have raised in our commentary. As highlighted by the report of the Rockefeller Foundation/Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, human health ultimately depends on the state of the natural systems. However, the global industrial food system is severely damaging ecosystems and is considered the main driver of biodiversity loss due to land-use change and habitat destruction.

As we pointed out in our work, although the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization have been emphasizing the effect of dietary patterns on human health and ecosystems, little has been done globally to safeguard the health of people, animals, and the environment, all together.

That is why we urge that future global food systems fora, biodiversity conventions, and climate change conferences highlight the destruction of agrobiodiversity caused by ultra-processed diets and agree on policies and actions designed to slow and reverse this disaster. Relevant policymakers at all levels, researchers, professional and civil society organizations, and citizen action groups, need to be part of this process.

World Health Day

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What advice would you give to someone who wants to help improve their diet to help better the planet?

When we talk about the severe damages that our global industrial food system is causing to our planet, we should first incentivize research groups, representatives of professional categories, and civil society to support and demand that national governments implement various policy strategies (e.g. fiscal and regulatory measures, adequate nutrition labeling, food procurement policies) to promote the production, access, and consumption of a rich variety of fresh and minimally processed foods, and discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of ultra-processed foods.

For instance, national dietary guidelines should be revised to emphasize a preference for a variety of fresh, locally produced minimally processed foods and avoid ultra-processed foods as happened in countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Israel, and Peru. As individuals, my main advice would be for them to follow the golden rule of the Brazilian Dietary Guideline “always prefer fresh or minimally processed foods and culinary preparations to ultra-processed foods”

Are you hopeful that with continued awareness surrounding the effects this diet has on planetary health we will see more people changing their dietary habits leading to an increase in biological diversity? What would this mean for agriculture?

Yes, reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods is one way by which we could reduce our environmental footprint, increase the diversity of edible plant species we mobilize through our diets, and improve our health. It is important to emphasize that the environmental impact of ultra-processed foods is avoidable: these products are considered discretionary foods, meaning that they are completely unnecessary for human nutrition.

In terms of agriculture, transitioning to dietary patterns with low (or inexistent) consumption of ultra-processed foods could set aside land to produce other plant species associated with healthier and more sustainable food consumption patterns. However, for this to happen, global food systems need to be re-oriented to promote greater availability of and accessibility to a variety of fresh, minimally processed plant-sourced foods.

The Ten Years for Agroecology (TYFA), a project which explores the possibility of generalizing agroecology at the European level by analyzing the uses and requirements of agricultural production, both now and in the future, is a great example. The authors emphasize that it is possible for Europe to live a sustainable agroecological transition by 2050, but policies to support a great dietary transition toward healthier and less calorie-dense diets with fewer animal and ultra-processed food products would have to be put in place urgently.

What are the next steps for you and your research?

We have started a new study at the Centre of Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (Nupens) as part of my Ph.D. thesis, to investigate the impacts of different dietary patterns, particularly those high in ultra-processed foods and animal-sourced foods on agrobiodiversity. I look forward to dedicating the following years of my career to exploring this topic.

Where can readers find more information?

  • Leite FHMKhandpur NAndrade GC, et al
    Ultra-processed foods should be central to global food systems dialogue and action on biodiversity
  • Fardet A, Rock E. Ultra-Processed Foods and Food System Sustainability: What are the Links? Sustainability 2020;12(6280):1-26 doi: 10.3390/su12156280[published Online First: Epub Date]
  • Monteiro CA, Lawrence M, Millett C, et al. The need to reshape global food processing: a call to the United Nations Food Systems Summit. BMJ global health 2021;6(7) doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006885[published Online First: Epub Date]
  • Baker P, Machado P, Santos T, et al. Ultra-processed foods and the nutrition transition: Global, regional and national trends, food systems transformations and political economy drivers. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 2020 doi: 10.1111/obr.13126[published Online First: Epub Date]
  • Rist S, Bonanomi EB, Giger M, et al. Variety is the source of life: Agrobiodiversity benefits, challenges, and needs. Swiss: Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) 2020.
  • Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutrition 2019;22(5):936-41 doi: 10.1017/S1368980018003762 [published Online First: Epub Date]|.

About Fernanda H M Leite Villamarin

Fernanda Marrocos Villamarin holds a BSc in Nutrition Science and an MSc in Public Health Nutrition from the Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Global Health and Sustainability at the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil, under the guidance of Prof. Carlos Monteiro. Her doctoral thesis aims to investigate the impact of different dietary patterns on the Brazilian agrobiodiversity. She acted as Policy Research Officer to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition Secretariat, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine between 2015 and 2018.Fernanda Marrocos

Fernanda worked with the Brazilian School Feeding Programme (2012 – 2014), being responsible for the development and management of nutrition projects created in partnership with the National Fund for Development of Education (FNDE), Ministry of Education. She acts as a Researcher at the Center of Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health and an Independent Consultant on the topics of food and nutrition security and sustainable food systems.

Emily Henderson

Written by

Emily Henderson

During her time at AZoNetwork, Emily has interviewed over 300 leading experts in all areas of science and healthcare including the World Health Organization and the United Nations. She loves being at the forefront of exciting new research and sharing science stories with thought leaders all over the world.


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