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Sustainability Principle 1: Whole Food First

Welcome to this blog series, where we’ll go into detail about the Sustainable Food Society’s seven principles for sustainable eating. Today, we’re going to discuss principle 1: Whole Food First.


Put simply, this principle means:

  1. Prioritise unprocessed, whole foods where possible

  2. Avoid ultra-processed foods

Skip straight to my daily tips, or read on to learn more!


So, what’s the problem with ultra-processed “food”?


The amount of ultra-processed “food” people are eating is on the up: in the UK an average of 56.8%(1) of total energy intake is from these ultra-processed foods, whilst in Portugal it’s found to be 23⋅8%(2). Both of these figures are rising. Eating increased amounts of ultra-processed “food” is bad for two reasons: firstly, it’s really bad for our health; and secondly, it’s terrible for our environment.

Before we dive into each of these in turn, let’s have a quick explanation of what ultra-processed "food" actually is. Ultra-processed “foods” are industrial formulations, made from substances which are:

  • extracted from whole foods, such as oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins

  • derived from food constituents, such as hydrogenated fats and modified starch

  • synthesised in laboratories via chemical reactions using material from plants, such as flavour enhancers, colours, and food additives(3)


These “foods” are created using manufacturing (not cooking) techniques like extruding, fractioning, or moulding, from ingredients that you wouldn’t find in a home or restaurant kitchen. In fact, these products are such a far cry from food that many people have suggested a more appropriate word to describe these items is not food but "food-like substance", which is why I use inverted commas in the phrase ultra-processed “food”.


You can read more about ultra-processed “foods”, including examples, in my Guide to Whole, Processed and Ultra-Processed Food.


Ultra-processed “food” is terrible for our health


Ultra-processed “food” provides high levels of fat, salt and sugar, yet no vitamins, minerals, protein or fibre. Epidemiological studies consistently show that high consumption of ultra-processed “foods” is associated with poor diet quality and increased rates of obesity or diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease(4), some cancers(5), and a 62% increase in all-cause mortality(6).

There is even a growing body of evidence that these “foods” contribute to poor mental health. For example, a 2022 cross-sectional study published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition found that individuals consuming higher levels of ultra-processed “foods” were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy, and more anxious days(7).


Ultra-processed “food” is even worse for our environment


The ingredients for ultra-processed “food” are usually extracted, derived or synthesised from cheap grains like maize, wheat, soy and palm oil, or derived from confined animals fed on the same crops(8). Cheap grain and intensive meat production are the leading drivers of deforestation(9), also driving the rapid and severe decline in biodiversity(8), whilst rivers are polluted and choked with industrial farm waste.


Additionally, the agricultural and industrial processes involved burn fossil fuels and contribute to carbon emissions; create chemical pollution; and use up to 10% more water than the production of processed or minimally processed foods(10).

Finally, these mass-produced products require long-distance transportation (also contributing to emissions) and have a long shelf-life, requiring huge amounts of single-use plastic packaging which go on to choke our oceans.


The sad thing is that the industrial processing of food is completely unnecessary. Today it does not fulfil any nutritional need, and the raw agricultural ingredients and other resources used to produce these foods could be used to grow and sell healthy food that promotes population health and equity, while reducing environmental impact from food production.


So, what’s the solution? Sustainability Principle 1: Whole Food First!


Foods are grouped according to the level of processing they have been through: whole, unprocessed food and minimally processed food; processed culinary ingredients; processed food; and ultra-processed food. You can find out more about the differences between these groups, including many examples, in my Guide to Whole, Processed and Ultra-Processed Food.


The sustainability principle is about prioritising whole, unprocessed, and minimally processed food. Whole foods are the edible parts of plants, animals, fungi and algae like the fruits, seeds, grains, eggs, muscles (meat). Minimally processed foods are whole foods which have undergone minimal processing to extend the useful life of the food, like drying, roasting or pasteurising. The vast majority of the nutritional properties of these foods are protected, and no salt, sugar, oils or fats are added. Whilst it's best to prioritise whole food, processed food absolutely has a place on our plates too. Processed foods are whole or minimally processed foods which have been combined with a few ingredients such as sugar, salt or oil to extend the life of the food and/or make it tastier. Usually, these foods have two or three ingredients, and are easily recognisable as versions of the original food, because they have been made directly from these foods. You can find lots of examples in this guide.


Whole food is great for our health: unprocessed and minimally processed foods are strongly correlated with a healthy diet. In combination with unprocessed and minimally processed foods, processed foods also contribute to a healthy diet.


By choosing whole food over ultra-processed “food”, you’re less likely to be contributing to deforestation, biodiversity loss, excess carbon emissions, and excess water use. Real food uses much less packaging, and is less likely to be part of huge conglomerate supply chains focusing exclusively on profit, and is more likely to be grown and sold in local communities.


Daily tips


Here are some of my top tips to help you prioritise whole, less processed food:

  1. Cook! If you’re cooking at home, you are extremely likely to be eating whole, real food

  2. Check food labels for ingredients you don’t recognise (a sure fire way to identify an ultra-processed “food”)

  3. Swap fast food like Mcdonalds and KFC for takeaways made on site, such as local kebab shops serving whole bits of meat, falafels, hummus, salad etc; or places like LEON (in the UK)

  4. Identify when you’re more likely to reach for something ultra-processed, and make a plan in advance:

    1. Always end up eating a last minute ready meal on a busy Monday? Could you cook a bigger batch on a Sunday and have that ready for Monday instead?

    2. Always buy packaged ultra-processed bread? Do a bit of research to find whether your supermarket sells an alternative option, or whether there’s a convenient bakery somewhere nearby.

  5. Plan your snacks. It’s surprisingly easy to eat ultra-processed food as a snack, but when you’re prepared, it’s much easier to avoid those foods. Check out these swap ideas:

Ultra-processed snack

Swap for

Granola bar which contains more than a few ingredients

Granola bar with few ingredients, or homemade flapjack

Trail mix

Banana with nuts / dried fruit

Overnight oats


Flavoured crisps

Plain crisps

Toast and butter

Nuts

Ultra-processed cake e.g. Mr Kipling

Homemade cakes (or bought from a shop which made them)

Ultra-processed chocolate bar e.g. Kit Kat

Minimum ingredient chocolate bar e.g. Pump Street or Deliciously Ella

Fizzy drink (they’re all ultra-processed except plain fizzy water!)

Plain fizzy water

Smoothie or juice

Sweetened/flavoured yoghurt

Plain yoghurt with added fruit, nuts, honey etc

I hope you enjoyed learning about the sustainability principle Real Food Is Best. If you have questions or want to learn more, get in contact with me on Instagram or via email emily.sustainablefood@gmail.com.



References:

  1. Rauber F, Louzada MLDC, Martinez Steele E, et alUltra-processed foods and excessive free sugar intake in the UK: a nationally representative cross-sectional studyBMJ Open 2019;9:e027546. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-027546

  2. Magalhães, V., Severo, M., Correia, D., Torres, D., Costa de Miranda, R., Rauber, F., . . . Lopes, C. (2021). Associated factors to the consumption of ultra-processed foods and its relation with dietary sources in Portugal. Journal of Nutritional Science, 10, E89. doi:10.1017/jns.2021.61

  3. https://educhange.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/NOVA-Classification-Reference-Sheet.pdf

  4. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé)BMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1451 (Published 29 May 2019)

  5. Premature Deaths Attributable to the Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods in Brazil; Nilson, ScD et al; Published:November 07, 2022DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2022.08.013

  6. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study BMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1949 (Published 29 May 2019)

  7. Hecht, E., Rabil, A., Martinez Steele, E., Abrams, G., Ware, D., Landy, D., & Hennekens, C. (2022). Cross-sectional examination of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptoms. Public Health Nutrition, 25(11), 3225-3234. doi:10.1017/S1368980022001586

  8. Leite FHM, Khandpur N, Andrade GC, et alUltra-processed foods should be central to global food systems dialogue and action on biodiversityBMJ Global Health 2022;7:e008269.https://gh.bmj.com/content/7/3/e008269

  9. https://ourworldindata.org/what-are-drivers-deforestation

  10. Garzillo JMF, Poli VFS, Leite FHM, Steele EM, Machado PP, Louzada MLDC, Levy RB, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed food intake and diet carbon and water footprints: a national study in Brazil. Rev Saude Publica. 2022 Feb 28;56:6. doi: 10.11606/s1518-8787.2022056004551. PMID: 35239844; PMCID: PMC8859933.

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