In the spotlight

In the spotlight 1 

The imposition of ultra-processed edible products and what it takes to reclaim choice over what we eat

The rise of UPP in our diets is not a question of individual choice, as the food industry would like us to believe. We are made to want these products. UPP are industrial formulations created with the aim to be highly palatable (tasty) and even addictive, especially if introduced at an early age. The food industry invests billions in marketing and sales, using cartoons and celebrities, free giveaways, and strategic placement in shops. Small vendors are provided with branded refrigerators and food carts, while school meal and public aid programmes are additional lucrative markets.

A vast amount of research demonstrates that UPP harm our health and are a central cause of premature deaths.[1] This includes an increased risk of obesity and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular (heart) diseases, diabetes, and cancer, and also heightened vulnerability to infectious diseases. While this link is recognized by international and regional health authorities, it is fiercely contested by the food industry, which invests heavily in research and in public media downplaying the negative impacts of its most profitable product.

Social inequalities are an important factor driving consumption of UPP and related NCDs. Especially in high-income countries and urban areas, these products tend to be more easily accessible, both physically and economically, than fresh and minimally processed food. A central reason is that the true cost of production is not reflected in their pricing. While the UPP industry presents us with an “illusion of diversity” in its products, these are largely based on a handful of high-yield, low-cost crops: corn, wheat, soy, sugar, and (palm) oil. The monoculture production and global trade chains attached to these have heavy environmental impacts, the costs of which are not accounted for. These include deforestation, pollution of water, air and soil with agrotoxics, excessive use of water, loss of biodiversity, CO2 emissions arising from production, transport and packaging, and plastic waste.

Added to this are immense social costs—displacement of rural populations (and alternative ways of production and exchange), dependency and low prices paid to food producers, as well as exploitative work conditions and wages across the industrial food chain. The mass-scale of production and distribution together with the fiscal benefits the companies obtain further add to the artificially low cost of UPP.   

To reclaim control over what we eat and have a true choice we need to curb corporate power across the entire food system. Regulatory measures around UPP, such as warning labels and marketing regulations, are urgently needed and are a public health imperative. At the same time, we also need to work on viable alternatives. To have diversity on our plates we need diversity in our fields; to have healthy food, we need healthy soil. This requires public policies for the transition towards agroecology, as well as support for farmers’ markets, cooperatives, and other distribution and exchange systems, based on proximity and solidarity. Moreover, we must address the structural inequalities that impede access to real food, including by ensuring decent wages and income.

In the spotlight 2

UPF pose enormous threats to Africa’s food systems and just agroecological transitions

Food systems are rapidly changing in Africa, mimicking the global trend of increased consumption of ultra-processed food (UPF). This is notable in urban and rural areas, beginning in coastal urban areas and spreading to landlocked regions. Food consumption in urban areas is largely based on purchases, with a greater amount of these being ultra-processed foods. In rural areas less than half of food is purchased and most of this food is still minimally processed.  UPF imports are also rapidly increasing, with soft drink imports into the Southern African Development Community surging by 1200% between 1995 and 2010, while snack foods increased by 750%. 

Rising UPF consumption in Africa is linked to changing socio-economic and politico-economic conditions, and structural inequities that contribute to making UPF more accessible, affordable, and desirable in both urban and rural areas. The privatisation of food-related parastatals and liberalisation of foreign direct investment (FDI) have greatly enabled the entry of UPF into Africa. Investment in UPF (breweries, distilleries, soft drinks, sugar products) comprises 22% of all FDI into the food system and is double that invested into farms and plantations.  UPF are manufactured and supplied by small and medium enterprises and large corporations, including transnational food corporations such as Nestle, Unilever and Danone. Supermarkets have expanded exponentially on the continent, typically packed with UPF. However, it is also sold by local street vendors and can also be found in small convenience stores across the continent.

As UPF is consumed more extensively and frequently in Africa, and by more people, it inevitably displaces traditional healthy and nutritious food, dietary and agricultural diversity, and local farming systems. This phenomenon is closely correlated with the obesity pandemic taking hold in the region and several other diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as type 2 diabetes and cancers. The rise in people becoming overweight and obesity occurs alongside continued high rates of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.

There is a critical gap in knowledge regarding consumer interactions with food systems in current food sovereignty discourse. While there are clear linkages with struggles for a just agroecological food system transition, the current discourse tends to be biased towards rural areas, with limited relevance for urban populations, farm workers, industrial food workers, and other actors across the rural-urban continuum. The discourse needs to deepen, addressing the structural factors that both limit access to healthy diets and perpetuate poverty, inequities, hunger, and malnutrition in a never-ending cycle on the continent.

Find out more in the African Centre for Biodiversity Fact Sheet series on UPF in Africa.

[1] See Ultra-processed food exposure and adverse health outcomes: umbrella review of epidemiological meta-analyses.