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Popular foods are bad for humans and our planet

There are more than 7,000 different plant species on Earth that are edible and can be used for food. And yet 90 percent of humanity’s energy intake is derived from the use of only 15 crop plant species. This means that humans focus on a very small proportion of the available diversity of plant species from which to derive their nutrition. It also means that very few of the many different edible species are actually cultivated, while the rest are ignored or may even verge on the edge of extinction. 

In 2014, fewer than 200 species of plants were cultivated to any meaningful extent,  and just nine crops accounted for more than 66 percent by weight of all crop production in that year. This trend impacts agrobiodiversity – the variety and variability of animals, plants and microorganisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture.

One of the reasons for this concerning trend is that the world is gradually adopting a global diet of ultra-processed foods. These foods, which include sweetened or salty snacks, soft drinks, instant noodles, reconstituted meat products, pre-prepared pizza and pasta dishes, biscuits and confectionery, are made by assembling food substances and ‘cosmetic’ additives (notably flavors, colors and emulsifiers) through a series of industrial processes.

According to a commentary published today in the journal BMJ Global Health, the fact that sales and consumption of these ultra-processed foods are growing in all regions and in almost all countries, is a matter of grave concern. These foods have come at the expense of the cultivation, manufacture, retail and consumption of fresh and minimally processed foods that comprise traditional diets. Not only are ultra-processed foods bad for human health, but they also have a negative impact on the biodiversity of plant species available for consumption by humans.  

The authors of the commentary, nutrition experts from Brazil, the US and Australia, warn that ultra-processed foods rely on ingredients from very few plant sources and that people’s diets are thus lacking in nutritional diversity. They state that more than four billion people in the world today rely on just three crop plants – rice, wheat and maize – for the majority of their nutritional input.

They also refer to an ongoing study of 7,020 ultra-processed foods sold in the main Brazilian supermarket chains, which has 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%). These few ingredients in ultra-processed foods were thus replacing the diversity of wholefoods necessary for a balanced and healthy diet. 

In addition, the authors warn that producing processed foods involves the use of large areas of land, as well as supplies of water, energy, herbicides and fertilizers, making it unhealthy and unsustainable for the planet as well. Processed foods are often wrapped in copious packaging, which ends up in landfills or polluting the environment, and the overall process is responsible for releasing greenhouse gases that negatively affect the climate. 

Ultra-processed foods are the basis of a “globalized diet” that is becoming more popular and available throughout the world. Currently, consumption of these foods is growing fastest in upper-middle-income and lower-middle income countries, and yet there is still very limited awareness of their damaging impact on planetary health. And even though many people are aware of the negative effects of these foods on human health, discussion of future approaches concerning ultra-processed foods is missing from international development agendas.

“The very rapid rise of ultra-processed foods in human diets will continue to place pressure on the diversity of plant species available for human consumption,” said the study authors. 

“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.”

“Relevant policy makers at all levels, researchers, professional and civil society organizations, and citizen action groups, need to be part of this process.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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