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Ultra-processed foods and drinks: A deadly combination for health and the environment

Ultra-processed foods and drinks: A deadly combination for health and the environment

Industrially processed foods and beverages have increased shelf-life and availability, which has helped to administer the increasing global food demand and reduce malnutrition. Nonetheless, there was a rise within the production and consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks (UPFD), adversely affecting health and the environment. A recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study investigated the combined and separate impact of ultra-processed drinks (UPD) and ultra-processed foods (UPF) consumption on the environment and all-cause mortality.

Study: Different levels of ultra-processed food and beverage consumption and associations with environmental sustainability and all-cause mortality in EPIC-NL. Image Credit: Bro Types / Shutterstock


Typically, UPFDs are produced using a selected food or its components. These foods are transformed into ready-to-eat consumables that contain a considerable amount of sugar, fat, salt, and artificial additives. UPFDs are energy-dense food products which can be rapidly replacing unprocessed foods and beverages.

In the previous couple of a long time, a rapid increase in UPFD consumption has been observed within the Netherlands. High consumption of UPFD has been related to the manifestation of cancer, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, obese, and all-cause mortality. Moreover, production and consumption of ultra-processed foods not only affect human health but additionally have opposed consequences for the environment. It has been estimated that UPFDs account for 70% of freshwater withdrawals, 26% of the rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 78% of marine and freshwater eutrophication.

Not many studies can be found regarding the environmental impact of UPFD. Certain studies have indicated a differential impact of UPFD on the environment, which will depend on the food group and food type. For example, within the context of GHG emissions, UPF production causes higher or similar emissions in comparison with unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Nonetheless, within the case of UPD production, lower GHG emissions were noted in comparison with the identical unprocessed or minimally processed food item.

UPFDs require more packaging, processing, and transportation, and all this affects the environment adversely. For example, UPFD is filled with single-use plastics, transported over long distances, and requires refrigeration. These products also utilize a significantly great amount of chemicals, energy, water, and additives. 

A recent survey has estimated that the acquisition and consumption of UPFDs in France, Brazil, and the Netherlands account for twenty-four%, 20%, and 43% of diet-related GHG emissions, respectively. UPFD consumption is directly linked with environmental impacts as a consequence of higher caloric intake. Although the vast majority of studies have explored the association between UPFD and all-cause mortality, not many studies have assessed the person effect of UPF and UPD consumption on all-cause mortality. 

Concerning the Study

This study recruited participants from the population-based Dutch European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-NL) cohort. EPIC-NL comprised two cohorts, namely, Prospect and the Monitoring Project on Risk Aspects for Chronic Diseases (MORGEN), which were formed between 1993 and 1997.

A complete of 40,011 participants were present within the EPIC-NL at baseline. All participants were between 20 and 70 years of age. Each Prospect and MORGEN cohorts comprised female and male candidates. General information, equivalent to age, sex, education level, smoking status, and physical activity, was obtained for the chosen participants through questionnaires. All participants were instructed to finish a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) as well.

Study Findings

This prospective study comprised 38,261 Dutch adults, of which 76% were female. The common consumption of UPFD was found to be 181 grams per 1000 kcal, out of which 91 grams were UPF and 90 grams were UPD. Salty snacks and cookies/biscuits are commonly consumed UPF, while liquors, chocolate milk, and sweetened soft drinks are popular UPDs.

Although the differential impact for diets low in UPF or UPD was statistically significant, it was relatively small. In comparison with UPF, UPD consumption demonstrated more health risks. For example, higher UPF consumption was related to lower diet-related environmental impacts. Nonetheless, a better UPD consumption was linked with higher diet-related environmental impacts, aside from land use. The general food regimen effect of UPFD consumption on the environment was almost the identical. The quantity of UPFD consumption, their degree of processing, and their effect on the environment varied across the quartiles.

The present study’s findings indicated that the association between UPFD consumption and all-cause mortality was mostly driven by UPD consumption. Consistent with this finding, a previously conducted meta-analysis revealed that top consumption of sugar or artificially sweetened beverages is robustly linked to a better risk of all-cause mortality. 


The authors claim this study to be the primary to analyze how UPFD, UPF, and UPD consumption affect the environment and all-cause mortality. Diets with a better portion of UPF exhibited lower environmental impacts. In the longer term, more studies are required to quantify the environmental impact of UPF and UPD consumption. Taken together, in comparison with UPF, a lower UPD consumption could reduce the environmental impact and all-cause mortality risk.


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