A study by a UK university has identified a link between the consumption of “ultra-processed” foods and a country’s ability to meet climate-change goals.

Using Brazil as a case in point – one of the world’s largest meat producers – the University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food found consumers in the developing country have, over the past 30 years, increased consumption of overly-processed foods, which are thought to raise the risk of heart disease, cancer and other medical conditions.

The Brazilian urban household study conducted between 1987 and 2018, identified the consumption of reconstituted meat products such as sausages, and ready meals, margarines, sweets and soft drinks as culprits, which the University said were “linked to worsened environmental impacts”.

Published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, the findings “help demonstrate how changes in a nation’s diet can affect its environmental impact, including its contribution to climate change”.

The University linked Brazil and the UK, which it said had both “undergone a nutrition transition” over the past 30 years “toward a diet higher in ultra-processed foods”. And the products cited have been “the largest contributor to worsening impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, Brazil’s water footprint, and ecological footprint such as deforestation”.

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“For our health and sustainability, ultra-processed foods are already a massive and growing problem. This study shows that Brazil is experiencing a similar transition in their diet to what has happened in the UK. Both in a shorter time frame and with similar large effects on the environment,” Dr Christian Reynolds, the co-author of the study and a visiting fellow from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food, said.

Reynolds, who is a lecturer at the University of London’s Centre for Food Policy, added: “Our findings suggest that diet-related diseases and climate change share an underlying driver and therefore, should be addressed simultaneously. Multi-component actions and policies targeting multiple areas should be considered. For instance, fiscal interventions such as taxes or subsidies, regulation on advertising, and improving food and menus labelling with the addition of environmental impacts.”

The study encompassed the consumption of so-called G1 foods (unprocessed or minimally processed), along with G2 foods (processed culinary ingredients), G3 (processed foods) and G4 (ultra-processed foods).

The report explained: “The study found that while the proportion of G1 and G2 foods in the households’ diet had decreased, the amount of G3 and G4 foods consumed had increased.

“It found that the increasing environmental impact of G4 foods was driven by an increase in consumption of ultra-processed meat, which at least doubled its contribution to daily environmental impacts per individual, reaching about 20% of total diet-related footprints over the 30-year time frame.

“Per 1,000 calories consumed, these changes in the diet were associated with a 21% increased contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, 22% increased contribution to the nation’s water footprint, and 17% increased contribution to its ecological footprint.”

Jacqueline Tereza da Silva at Brazil’s University of São Paulo was the leading author of the study from the Department of Preventative Medicine.

Nutritionist da Silva said: “The relationship between food systems and climate change is complex and challenges food security itself. Food systems are responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and yet, at the same time, they suffer from the climate impacts that they themselves help to cause.”