Beyond Plants: The Ultra-Processing of Global Diets Is Harming the Health of People, Places, and Planet

Susan L. Prescott, Christopher R. D’Adamo, Kathleen F. Holton, Selena Ortiz, Nina Overby, Alan C. Logan

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Global food systems are a central issue for personal and planetary health in the Anthropocene. One aspect of major concern is the dramatic global spread of ultra-processed convenience foods in the last 75 years, which is linked with the rising human burden of disease and growing sustainability and environmental health challenges. However, there are also calls to radically transform global food systems, from animal to plant-derived protein sources, which may have unintended consequences. Commercial entities have moved toward this “great plant transition” with vigor. Whether motivated by profit or genuine environmental concern, this effort has facilitated the emergence of novel ultra-processed “plant-based” commercial products devoid of nutrients and fiber, and sometimes inclusive of high sugar, industrial fats, and synthetic additives. These and other ingredients combined into “plant-based” foods are often assumed to be healthy and lower in calorie content. However, the available evidence indicates that many of these products can potentially compromise health at all scales—of people, places, and planet. In this viewpoint, we summarize and reflect on the evidence and discussions presented at the Nova Network planetary health meeting on the “Future of Food”, which had a particular focus on the encroachment of ultra-processed foods into the global food supply, including the plant-sourced animal protein alternatives (and the collective of ingredients therein) that are finding their way into global fast-food chains. We contend that while there has been much uncritical media attention given to the environmental impact of protein and macronutrient sources—meat vs. novel soy/pea protein burgers, etc.—the impact of the heavy industrial processing on both human and environmental health is significant but often overlooked, including effects on cognition and mental health. This calls for a more nuanced discourse that considers these complexities and refocuses priorities and value systems towards mutualistic solutions, with co-benefits for individuals, local communities, and global ecology.

Original languageEnglish
Article number6461
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number15
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023

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