For health and the planet, a campaign against ultra-processed foods

In Mexico, there is not only a high consumption of ultra-processed products, but also a high burden of chronic diseases. Photo: Rogelio Morales, Cuartoscuro.

As a country, as a population, we have one of the highest consumptions in the world of unhealthy ultra-processed foods and beverages that have led us to occupy the first places in overweight, obesity and diabetes in the world. The high consumption of these products represents, at the same time, the largest source of plastic waste. These ultra-processed products are not necessary, nor are their packaging, they harm the health of the population and the environment.

The challenges we face as a nation and as a species require a systemic, global vision and comprehensive solutions. We cannot allow business and corporate practices to continue, which, in order to maintain their profits and businesses as they have been doing, transfer their damage to society and the environment. They privatize profits and socialize damages.

We live in a Global Syndemic where health and environmental crises feed off each other. The health of the population depends on a healthy diet and the health of the planet depends on the regeneration of its ecosystems. One and the other are intertwined: there are products that harm the health of people and the planet and foods that protect health and help regenerate the earth by turning it into compost and restoring its fertility.

The scenarios are catastrophic and action is not being taken on time.

In Mexico, the consumption of sugary drinks and ultra-processed products is excessive and has replaced the consumption of traditional foods. The Pan American Health Organization reports that the sale of ultra-processed products and sugar-sweetened beverages in our country is the highest in all of Latin America, with sales of 214 kg of products and beverages per capita, almost double the average for the region. Likewise, in the last three decades, the consumption of ultra-processed foods in Mexico has doubled and almost a third of the daily energy intake of Mexicans comes from these products.

In Mexico, there is not only a high consumption of ultra-processed products, but also a high burden of chronic diseases. More than 75 percent of Mexican adults are overweight or obese. In 2020, heart disease, related to poor diet, was the main cause of death in the population with 218,704. In the same year, about 151,019 people died from diabetes, about 47,000 more deaths than reported in 2019 (104,354).[i] In addition to this, the sum of deaths in this same year (2020), due to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, exceeded those that occurred due to COVID-19 (200,256); It has also been shown that complications and deaths from contracting coronavirus increase in people with obesity and diabetes.

The consumption of ultra-processed products and risk of disease and death

High consumption of ultra-processed products has been associated with a 23-51% increased risk of obesity. [ii],[iii] Various studies have found that the risk of developing diabetes is 44-65 percent higher among the group that consumes the most ultra-processed foods, compared to the group that consumes the least amount.[iv] In addition, the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases is 29% higher, among those who consume a greater amount of ultra-processed products.

Researchers have revealed that ultra-processed products not only increase the risk of disease, but also death. All-cause mortality is 25-28 percent higher for individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed products compared to those who consumed the least.

Ultra-processed products and damage to the planet

Ultra-processed products are not only harmful to health, but also to the environment, due to plastic waste from packaging and bottles. One million plastic beverage bottles are bought every minute[v] and just one bottle takes approximately 450 years to degrade.[vi] In addition to this, about 40 percent of the plastics produced are single-use, that is, they are used for a few minutes, such as the packaging and wrapping of ultra-processed products, and then are discarded. Of all the plastics that have been produced, 80% remains in the environment.

The make-up of the companies makes the consumer think that a bottle that appears to be recyclable is totally recycled and this is not the case, the plastics degrade and only part of that bottle will be used as raw material for another bottle, the main thing being virgin plastic. Waste recycling generates its own water and carbon footprint, as fossil fuels are used in recycling facilities, which is also a significant source of pollution.

In 2021, a study revealed that the companies that polluted the most with plastics are those of ultra-processed products. The top ten polluting companies are: The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Mondelēz International, Philip Morris International, Danone, Mars, Inc. and Colgate-Palmolive.

Plastic damage extends far beyond its accumulation in our natural spaces, it represents a problem since its production. Nearly 99 percent of plastics are made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, oil, gas, and coal. And its life cycle contributes to the climate crisis, the release of greenhouse gases (GHG), to the contamination of soil, air and water.

It is important to mention that the ultra-processed products industry promotes the idea of ​​recycling as a solution to the production of plastics through advertising, campaigns and voluntary actions that make consumers believe that everything the industry recycles becomes new bottles generating a virtuous circle. Despite the investment and promotion of recycling for decades, it has shown that this is not the solution; one study concludes that only 9 percent of all plastics produced in the world has been recycled.

Given this scenario of diseases and damage to the planet due to the consumption of ultra-processed products, it is urgent to move towards healthy and sustainable diets, where food practices are good for both human health and the planet. An important characteristic of these diets is the reduction and restriction of ultra-processed products and, on the contrary, having a consumption of unprocessed foods, including safe and clean drinking water as a source of hydration and thus avoiding the use of plastics and derivatives in food packaging.

These are the reasons why the Alliance for Food Health launched the Planet Health campaign that can be seen in the subway and the streets of Mexico City, in addition to being heard on the radio in this city, one of the most populous in the world. , with one of them higher rates of overweight, obesity, diabetes and the generation of plastic waste.

[i]Contreras, Alexandra. Estimated data from the Inegi COVID-19 Database in Mexico (October 25, 2021) and the estimate of excess deaths from COVID-19 from March 18, 2020 to October 4, 2021. 2021;(Nov 01). thousand-deaths-more-than-reported-in-2019/

Pagliai G, Dinu M, Madarena MP, Bonaccio M, Iacoviello L, Sofi F. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition 2021;125(3):308-318.

Lane MM, Davis JA, Beattie S, et al. Ultraprocessed food and chronic noncommunicable diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 43 observational studies. Obesity Reviews 2021;22(3):e13146. doi: 10.1111/obr.13146.

[iv]University of North Carolina Global Food Research, 2021.

[v]United Nations. Objective 12. United Nations.

WWF Australia. The lifecycle of plastics. 2021;(julio 02).

Alexander Calvillo

Sociologist with studies in philosophy (University of Barcelona) and in environment and sustainable development (El Colegio de México). Director of The Power of the Consumer. He was part of the founding group of Greenpeace Mexico where he worked for a total of 12 years, five as executive director, working on issues of air pollution and climate change. He is a member of The Lancet’s Obesity Commission. He is on the editorial board of World Obesity, an organ of the World Public Health Nutrition Association. Recognized by the international organization Ashoka as a social entrepreneur. He has been invited to collaborate with the Pan American Health Organization within the group of experts for the regulation of food and beverage advertising aimed at children. He has participated as a speaker in conferences organized by the ministries of health of Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Chile, as well as by the Congress of Peru. the International EAT forum, the Obesity Society, among others.

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