Processed food and its role in nutritious and sustainable diets

Published: 16 Dec 2021
Type: Publication

A balanced and diverse mix of vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and proteins should be at the heart of healthy and sustainable diets. However, these foods are not always accessible to everyone, which is a major concern for public health. Food processing, which is an essential element of food systems around the world, has the potential to help mitigate nutrition insecurity and overcome the environmental challenges of nourishing the global population sustainably. To do so, the formulations of processed foods must become more nutrition-sensitive and undergo optimization to reduce environmental impacts.

This paper, which is rooted in scientific evidence, contributes to discussions on delivering healthy and sustainable diets to all and the role that processed food can play in supporting this goal.

The widespread consumption of processed foods is a significant trend in peoples’ diets globally and is likely to accelerate in the coming years. Today, food processing provides many people with access to safe and nutritious food. It is a tool for curbing food and nutrient loss and waste, increasing food affordability, diversifying diets, and scaling up sustainable production practices. Processing helps build resilience into complex food systems. Advances in processing technologies will help nourish increasingly urbanized populations. There is an opportunity today to channel and shape the future of processed foods, leveraging processing for the benefits it provides while moving away from the formulations, portion sizes and consumption patterns that are damaging to public health and the environment. 

The topic of processed food can be complicated and contentious; the collective understanding of the role of processed foods in relation to human and environmental health continues to evolve with developments in research, technology, policy-making, and consumer choice and behavior. The association between the excessive consumption of foods high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat and trans-fats with increased risk of obesity and non-communicable diseases is well established scientifically and is not under debate. Scientific research has not provided evidence that the processing of foods per se leads to a further increase in this risk.

This paper suggests that the final composition of the food, the portions consumed, and the frequency of consumption are, together, a better indication of the health impacts of food than the degree of processing. This is an important distinction that warrants consideration by governments, academics and other stakeholders. Focusing on nutritional composition encourages food companies to improve the healthfulness of the products they sell. Industry, governments and other stakeholders can help establish favorable enabling environments for processed foods and shift populations towards healthier and more sustainable eating habits overall.

The companies involved in creating this paper share WBCSD’s Vision 2050, calling for a world in which food systems address the combined challenges of the climate crisis, nature loss and mounting inequality through “a regenerative and equitable food system producing healthy, safe and nutritious food for all.” This vision will require business to contribute to ensuring that everyone has access to nutritious and affordable food; sustainable production restores and safeguards nature; people consume food sustainably; and, value chains are prosperous, equitable and free from human rights abuses. This vision is also the foundation of WBCSD’s strategy for 2022 to 2027, designed to step up business action for system transformation.

Read the paper "Processed food and its role in nutritious and sustainable diets".

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