Over the last few years, eating patterns and food habits have shifted considerably across the world. Our diets have been impacted by technology, means of transportation used to get goods to stores, media, government, trade, and travel. Ageing, globalisation, and urbanisation contribute to deciding what people eat and how it affects their nutritional state.
Hence, nutrition-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise worldwide, owing to the shift from traditional to modern eating habits, especially with the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF). The increase in UPF is a major factor in this continuous change. Thus, the consumption and manufacturing of these foods pose a significant threat to human health and the environmental sustainability of the food system.
WHAT IS UPF?
UPF refer to “formulations of ingredients, most of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes”. They usually have a lot of additives and very little whole food. They’re foods such as confectionery, soft drinks, chips, pre-prepared meals, and restaurant fast-food goods. It includes ice cream, chocolates, savoury snacks, burgers, processed meat, and frozen food. UPF are durable, low-cost, ready-to-consume, and are characterised as fatty, sweet, or salty, high in calories but low in protein, dietary fiber, and micronutrients.
On the other hand, there are traditional foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, nuts, legumes, and other products that are minimally processed or simply made using traditional processing techniques, which include fermentation, canning, and bottling.
UPF, on the other hand, have been processed beyond what is required for food safety. Processing food in itself is not the issue, it’s the type of processing that is problematic. UPF includes extensive processing and usually uses new physical and chemical techniques that create negative nutritional dietary quality and hence harm your overall health and the environment.
THE IMPACT ON HEALTH
Several studies have been done to find the relationship between UPF and health issues. UPF diets have been linked to a variety of health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and depression. High consumption of UPF is associated with an increased hazard of all-cause mortality and health-related diseases.
Higher consumption of UPFs: This means a higher risk of cardiocerebrovascular diseases such as overall cardiovascular diseases, risk of coronary heart diseases, risk of cerebrovascular diseases, and hypertension.
Respiratory diseases such as asthma and wheezing: There’s a direct connection between respiratory diseases among male adolescents, those who did not consume fruits and vegetables regularly, non-smokers, and parents who did smoke.
Gastrointestinal disease: higher risk of irritable bowel syndrome and concomitant functional dyspepsia.
Mental health diseases: the risk of depression and anxiety
Other health issues include the association between UPF and the risk of being overweight, obesity, and even cancer, or the risk of several pregnancy outcomes.
IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
The consequences of these foods on human health have been extensively researched, but the environmental repercussions have received less attention. UPF rely on a small number of crop species, putting a strain on the habitats where they are cultivated. Examples include maize, wheat, soy, and oil seed crops (such as palm oil). Food makers use these crops as they are low-cost and high-yielding, which allows them to be produced in large quantities.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meat, and dairy have all been replaced by UPF. As a result, both the quality of our diet and the diversity of our food supply have suffered, thus increasing the environmental footprint.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The impact of consumption of UPF on health may be severe, but the impact is avoidable by reducing and discouraging its production, distribution, and consumption. The first step for doing that would start with changing your eating habits.
The way ahead would be to shift preferences toward healthier options. One way to reduce our environmental footprint and boost the diversity of edible plant species we consume would be through our meals. It’s vital to note that UPF have an avoidable environmental impact: they’re classified as discretionary foods, which means they’re unnecessary for human nourishment. However, for this to happen, global food systems must be re-oriented to encourage increased availability and accessibility to a diversity of fresh, minimally processed plant-based meals.
The bottom line is that the current, worldwide food system must be reshaped immediately, and it starts with the decisions you take today!
The writer is Co-Founder & Head Dietitian, Diet Insight.