A deadly combination for health and the environment

Industrially processed foods and beverages have increased the shelf life and supply, which has helped to control the growing world food demand and reduce malnutrition. But increasing production and consumption of ultra-processed foods and beverages (UPFD) harms health and the environment. The latest American Journal of Clinical Nutrition The study examined the combined and separate effects of ultra-processed beverages (UPD) and ultra-processed foods (UPF) consumption on environmental and all-cause mortality.

Study: Different consumption levels of highly processed foods and beverages and their association with environmental sustainability and all-cause mortality in EPIC-NL.  Image Credit: Bro Types / ShutterstockResearch: 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 specific food or its components. These foods have been transformed into ready-to-eat products containing high amounts of sugar, fat, salt and artificial additives. UPFDs are energy-dense food products that quickly replace unprocessed foods and beverages.

In the last few decades, a rapid increase in UPFD consumption has been observed in the Netherlands. High UPFD consumption has been associated with increased risk of cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and all-cause mortality. In addition, the production and consumption of highly processed foods has a negative impact not only on human health, but also on the environment. UPFDs are estimated to cover 70% of freshwater, 26% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 78% of marine and freshwater eutrophication.

Not many studies are available on the environmental impact of UPFD. Some studies have shown that UPFD varies in the environment, depending on the food group and type of food. For example, in terms of GHG emissions, UPF production results in higher or similar emissions compared to unprocessed or minimally processed foods. However, in the case of UPD production, lower GHG emissions were observed compared to the same unprocessed or minimally processed food.

UPFDs require more packaging, processing and shipping, and all of this negatively affects the environment. For example, UPFD is packaged in single-use plastics, transported long distances, and requires refrigeration. These products use large amounts of chemicals, energy, water and additives.

A recent study found that the purchase and consumption of UPFDs account for 24%, 20%, and 43% of diet-related GHG emissions in France, Brazil, and the Netherlands, respectively. Due to its high calorie content, consumption of UPFD is directly related to environmental impacts. Although most studies have explored the relationship between UPFD and all-cause mortality, several studies have evaluated the effects of UPF and UPD consumption on all-cause mortality.

About the study

This study recruited participants from the population-based Dutch European Prospective Investigative into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-NL) cohort. EPIC-NL consists of two groups, the Prospect and Surveillance Project on Risk Factors for Chronic Diseases (MORGEN), established between 1993 and 1997.

A total of 40,011 participants participated in EPIC-NL at baseline. All participants are between 20 and 70 years old. Both the Prospects and MORGEN teams are comprised of male and female candidates. General information such as age, gender, education level, smoking status, and physical activity were obtained from selected participants through questionnaires. All participants were instructed to complete a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ).

Research findings

This study included 38,261 Dutch adults, 76% of whom were women. The average consumption of UPFD per 1000 kcal was found to be 181 grams, of which 91 grams are UPF and 90 grams are UPD. Salty snacks and cookies/crackers are commonly used UPF, while liquor, chocolate milk and sweetened soft drinks are popular UPDs.

Although the difference in UPF or UPD lower diets was statistically significant, it was relatively small. Compared to UPF, UPD consumption has shown more health risks. For example, higher UPF consumption is associated with lower diet-related environmental impacts. However, higher UPD consumption was associated with diet-related environmental impacts other than land use. The overall dietary impact of UPFD consumption on the environment was almost the same. UPFD consumption rates, their processing levels and their impact on the environment vary across the quadrants.

The findings of the current study indicated that the relationship between UPFD consumption and all-cause mortality was largely driven by UPFD consumption. Consistent with this finding, a previous meta-analysis found that high consumption of sugar or artificially sweetened beverages was associated with a higher risk of death.


The authors say this study is the first to examine how consumption of UPFD, UPF, and UPD affects the environment and all-cause mortality. Foods with a higher UPF class showed lower environmental impacts. In the future, more studies are needed to quantify the environmental impact of UPF and UPD consumption. Taken together, compared with UPF, lower consumption of UPD may reduce environmental impact and all-cause mortality risk.

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