Our propensity for packaged ramen lunches, frozen pizza, too much pasta and then soda to wash it all down doesn’t only put our personal health at greater risk over the long run — highly processed diets are damaging the planet, a group of scientists argues.
That’s because we’re killing off diverse plant offerings in favor of only a handful of grains for human consumption and to feed the animals we eat mainly for beef, pork and chicken.
The connection between human health and environmental factors was laid out in new research and a commentary published this week in the journal BMJ Global Health.
Ultra-processed foods, such as sweetened or salty snacks, soft drinks, instant noodles, reconstituted meat products, pre-prepared pizza and pasta dishes, cookies and candy, are made by assembling food substances, mostly commodity ingredients, and “cosmetic” additives, such as color and emulsifiers, through a series of industrial processes.
“ More than 7,000 edible plant species can be used for human food, but fewer than 200 species have significant production.”
Consequently, dietary patterns worldwide are becoming increasingly more processed and less diverse, having an impact on agrobiodiversity — the variety and variability of animals, plants and microorganisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, impacting soil health and farming’s long-run profitable resilience as well.
Nature’s bounty ignored?
More than 7,000 edible plant species can be used for human food, but fewer than 200 species had significant production in 2014, the latest year for complete data, and just nine crops accounted for more than 66% by weight of all crop production, the report said.
As much as 90% of humanity’s energy intake comes from just 15 crop plants, and more than four billion people rely on just three of them: rice, wheat and maize, also called corn depending on where it’s grown.
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Nations with rising economies are joining the already developed world in these edible shortcuts whose benefit might be shelf-life, convenience and sometimes price. Branding and food culture broadly also play a role. Currently, their consumption is growing fastest in upper-middle-income and lower-middle-income countries.
Additionally worrisome to these authors is that the long-run impact isn’t amplified at the many global conferences tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.
“Future global food systems fora, biodiversity conventions and climate change conferences need to highlight the destruction of agrobiodiversity caused by ultra-processed foods, and to agree on policies and actions designed to slow and reverse this disaster,” said Trish Cotter, the global lead of the food policy program at Vital Strategies, and her co-authors.
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Lack of balance
The authors pointed to an ongoing study of 7,020 ultra-processed foods sold in the main Brazilian supermarket chains, which found that their five main ingredients included food substances derived from sugar cane (52.4%), milk (29.2%), wheat (27.7%), corn (10.7%) and soy (8.3%). As a result, peoples’ diets were less diverse, with ultra-processed foods replacing the variety of wholefoods necessary for a balanced and healthy diet.
“ One study tied every 10 percentage-point increase in the share of the diet made up of ultra-processed foods to more than a 10% increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.”
As for human health, heavily processed foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. Consuming lots of these foods has long been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, or an early grave brought on by such factors as obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, cancer and depression.
Studies separate from the biodiversity probe linked eating more than four daily servings of ultra-processed foods to a 62% higher risk of premature death compared to eating little or none of these foods. Another tied every 10 percentage-point increase in the share of the diet made up of ultra-processed foods to more than a 10% increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Both studies by design did not look directly at the breakdowns of commodity components in these diets, but rather just recorded eating behavior and health conditions over a subject’s lifespan.
Another issue of concern in the biodiversity report was that ultra-processed food production used large quantities of land, water, energy, herbicides and fertilizers, causing environmental degradation from greenhouse gas emissions and accumulation of packaging waste.
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The link between humans and lost biodiversity can have greater consequences than nutritional concerns, including evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of human interaction with the animal kingdom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. Most scientists see a link between deforestation, habitat change and pandemics.
From Zika to West Nile, Ebola to SARS, Nipah to COVID-19, deforestation has had a hand in many of the world’s worst viral outbreaks as lost habitat brings animals in closer contact with humans.
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Broadly, the medical community has sounded a throaty call for more attention on the health effects from climate change.
In an effort last year that brought many voices on board, global warming was declared the “greatest threat” to public health, a claim made even while COVID-19 was spreading rampantly.
That unprecedented joint statement emerged from more than 200 U.S. and international medical journals.
The medically-trained editorial staffs of such leading publications as The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine and others insist that global leaders must do more or be faced with a global crisis for health, especially for vulnerable age groups and developing nations “that will be impossible to reverse.”