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The modern meal deal: a constant craving

EOS Insight
19 August 2022 |
In the sixth article in our Insights series on the social and environmental impacts of the global food system, Zoe de Spoelberch examines the supersized problem with ultra-processed and pre-packaged food.

Our global food systems are dysfunctional – obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, yet undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies remain. In developed countries, unhealthy, ultra-processed food can be cheaper than healthy, raw ingredients, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked food price inflation that is squeezing household budgets around the globe. However, the growing demand for healthier and plant-based diets make health and nutrition an area of opportunity for companies. 

The problem with Western diets

The modern Western food system has been geared to supply calories rather than nutrients. People who eat a lot of ultra-processed food high in salt, sugar and saturated fats are never properly sated because their diet is low in vital nutrients. They gain weight, but the body continues to crave the missing nutrients, prompting them to eat more. An understanding of the importance of the gut microbiome and the role this plays in overall health is also growing, and this can be heavily impacted by a poor diet.

Foods with health risks may also have negative environmental impacts:

  • Processed foods and palm oil: Processed foods contain preservatives, fats, sugar and salt to prolong shelf life. These ingredients have been linked to heart disease and cancer. Palm oil is used in biscuits, breads, cereals, ready-meals, infant formula, animal feed and more, and rainforests are often cleared for palm oil plantations. The manufacturing of processed food generates carbon emissions, and it often uses more packaging than non-processed alternatives.
  • Red meat: Eating red meat is associated with an increased risk of cancer. Raising livestock is also harmful to the climate, with 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from meat and dairy production. The mostly soy-based animal feed needed for livestock is another contributor to deforestation and land use change, competing with natural habitats. Animal manure pollutes water sources, which further impacts biodiversity.
  • Fertilisers and pesticides: Our food retains small amounts of the fertilisers and pesticides used in its production, making it less nutritious and potentially causing harm to those who consume it. In addition, nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide, is emitted when fertilisers are applied to soil. The excessive use of pesticides can also result in the contamination of the surrounding soil and water sources, leading to biodiversity loss.

Heavy metals: Metals find their way into our food through industrial activity and their use in agriculture. Lead has been found in water and baby food, arsenic in rice, cadmium in cereals, vegetables, nuts and seafood, and mercury in fish. These are all metals that impair brain function (especially in children) and are linked to cardiovascular diseases.

How to address this through engagement

Our food system should limit the energy intake from fats and sugars, and support a higher consumption of fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts. Plant-based diets are an effective way to boost health and nutritional intake and are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with meat-heavy diets. As outlined in a previous article in this series, transitioning to plant-based diets could also cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% and reduce the risk of land use change, deforestation and biodiversity loss.

EOS engages companies and policymakers to promote good health and nutrition. We ask for protein diversification, the reformulation of product portfolios towards healthy alternatives, and a clear articulation of a health and nutrition strategy, with associated targets and metrics. We also assess the governance behind a company’s nutrition strategies, the accessibility and affordability of food, responsible marketing and product labelling, and consumer and government engagement. Our engagement addresses five of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: ending hunger, ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being, responsible consumption and production, life on land, and life below water.

Consumer-facing companies such as retailers and restaurants can play an important role in driving demand for healthier foods. Although we advocate for plant-based alternatives to animal protein, we pay attention to the health profile of these alternatives to avoid those high in salt and saturated fats such as palm oil.

We also participate in collaborative engagements focusing on health and nutrition, and plant-based proteins. For example, we worked with ShareAction’s Healthy Markets Initiative to send a letter to Nestlé asking it to articulate its long-term health strategy. We also met UK supermarket Tesco to discuss its nutrient profiling methods. We were pleased to see it commit to selling 300% more plant-based products by 2025, versus a 2018 baseline, while encouraging other food and beverage companies to follow this lead.

We also engaged with contract food service company Compass Group, asking for more plant-based meals, and were pleased to see this included in its decarbonisation strategy as part of its meal reformulation plans. We met US food manufacturer General Mills to discuss sugar reduction in its products and support for organic farming, while through the Access to Nutrition Initiative we have engaged with Danone, Mondelez and others. We supported the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) Initiative by co-signing letters to companies seeking a transition to sustainable plant-based proteins, and we have engaged Sainsbury’s on developing metrics to track healthy and plant-based food sales.

We also co-signed an investor letter to the UK prime minister, co-ordinated by the Food Foundation. This asked the UK government to demonstrate leadership and ambition in its white paper response to the National Food Strategy’s recommendations for promoting a healthier and more sustainable food system. EOS will continue engaging on health and nutrition to support a more sustainable global food system.

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