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The disappearance of fresh food from our kitchens and its impact the food system.

Updated: May 2

As food processing and food manufacturing increase, the quality and quantity of what reaches our homes changes, our health changes, and our social relations around food change. Processed food is more and more present in everyone’s life and in Western countries, it has invaded domestic kitchens. Processed food refers to any food that is changed from its natural state. In this article, I’ll refer to ultra-processed foods, which are foods that are typically the result of intensive manufacturing processes. 


 

100 % of this article was written by a HUMAN BEING. AI would have never written what I wrote... :)


 

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The industrialisation that has taken over the 20th century and that has continued growing exponentially has indeed affected the food sector as well. A quick walk through an average supermarket in a Western country will show that about 80 to 90% of the edible food items are processed, and only the remaining 10 to 20% is fresh produce. In a supermarket, probably 99% of that fresh produce comes into some type of primary packaging, and all of it comes into a secondary packaging. Packaging, although sometimes very practical, adds to the list of systemic negative consequences of these products.


The negative consequences of the impact of processed foods are multifaceted, alarming and, inevitably, interconnected. Below is my list. Even though there are products and companies that represent an exception to each point presented below, nothing that can be found in our supermarkets (this is the context where we keep our focus for this article, as the place where most people buy most of their groceries) and that has even minimal processing has zero impact on the environment and therefore on the system. 


Health: A quick internet search will show hundreds of academic references demonstrating the direct negative correlation between processed food and our physical and mental health. Everybody knows this. Everybody knows that sugar causes addiction and that fatty processed meat is closely related to the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Yet the products are widely manufactured, distributed, marketed, and therefore bought. Although there are more and more small companies creating products that are not unhealthy (yes, the double negative is intentional, think about it), and they cater to many of our society’s apparent needs, processed food is less nutritious than fresh food, and the points addressed below remain true.


Planet: A quick internet search will show hundreds of academic references demonstrating the direct negative connection between processed anything and its environmental impact. Anything industrially processed, including industrial farming, creates enormous environmental destruction on many fronts like CO2 emissions, deforestation, plastic production, waste, water usage, soil pollution, etc. The environmental consequences of the products in our supermarkets are so huge that are almost incomprehensible, and therefore scary, and therefore, even if alternative media sources talk about it, almost nothing is done and the products are widely manufactured, distributed, marketed, and therefore bought.


People: A quick internet search will show hundreds of academic references demonstrating not only the health benefits of cooking and eating a home-cooked meal but also the positive psychological and social aspects of such an activity (by home-cooked meal we mean here using non-processed ingredients to prepare a meal, rather than heating up a pizza in the oven). Raw ingredients are an expansion into our homes of the natural system, and any time we spend immersed in it or in connection with it is essential for our physical and mental health. Food is also a social glue and as such it is, it has always been, and hopefully always will be the perfect excuse to spend time talking, discussing, listening, learning, laughing, and connecting. As more processed meals are eaten in the domestic sphere all of this gets lost and human beings march away from one another and towards a dark future of solitary confinement where all comfort is found on devices, screens, and digital content. Yes, let me indulge in this pessimistic view, it is proportionate to the damages processed food does. 


Food System: Here is what most people don’t think about. If we combine the three previous points, if we visualise all of the elements involved and the connections between each one, we see our global food system, and inevitably the impact of processed food on the whole food system. A banana ice cream eaten in Italy will have contributed to child labour in banana plantations in Ecuador. An avocado toast eaten in France will have contributed to deforestation in Mexico. Etc. In addition, it is important to remember that all the processed food products one can find in a supermarket are produced by sub-brands of only a handful of big corporations. The products produced by smaller local companies are a few. Similarly, the fresh produce available in supermarkets is also farmed by or for big companies. The fresh produce farmed by local farmers is limited. This has an important impact on choices of seeds, on pesticides and fertilisers, and therefore on biodiversity and food sovereignty, which are of course two additional crucial factors of our food system. 


Policy: If we now consider the previous four points we see how many connections (causes and consequences) in the food system are or can or should be managed by policies. If - given the scope of the given question - the issue at hand is the increase of processed food in domestic kitchens and the decrease of fresh food prepared and eaten at home is to be considered a problem (the evidence is abundant and, as expressed above, multifaceted) then what can be done to purposefully and amply bring improvement? Policy making is one path. Allow me to take a broad view of the issue, zooming out quite a bit. Why do most people eat processed meals? Because they are cheaper and because people don’t have time to spend on cooking (let me just quickly brush here the concept of food deserts as an extreme example and allow you to reflect on it). To tackle these two points is beyond the scope of this short writing exercise, as one can imagine the scale of the undertaking. What we can assume is that making fresh produce more affordable and making sure all of us have time during the day to dedicate to our meals (and therefore to our health, which would imply prevention and a reduced need for healthcare expenditures, but that’s a topic for another moment) must be tackled with policy-making, at some level, sooner or later, like it or not (for the policy makers themselves). Change needs to come from people, their interest and their willingness. True. For change to happen consistently and on a large scale though, it must be supported, encouraged and allowed by the environment, which is always, in some way, defined by policies. 


Children: Finally, I want to briefly round all of this up discussing those who will make our future tomorrow, and bring the attention to how our current food system affects children. Those children who today at home (or in school!) eat mostly processed food, learn that processed food is the norm and are likely to bring it to their future. This alone has an important impact on their health, society and the environment, now and in the future, and therefore on the food system, now and in the future. Therefore education, at home, in school, and through all media, becomes essential, and policy is necessary to implement that. If of all of the design-ing we could think of and implement to address the issue at hand we focused on education alone, in about a decade most of the demand for processed food would be gone, people would seek (or even grow whenever possible, definitely more than now), purchase and cook with fresh food, companies allowing the production, distribution and consumption of fresh food would increase in number, and all the beautiful consequences of such a society would spread quickly. Is this an assumption? Or is it a wish? 


In all of this, remember that all innovation is design-ed, whether you know it or not and whether you call it design or not. Design is - or should be - the process that helps innovators make deliberate and reasoned choices towards a certain goal. In my 20 years of practice, I have never met a designer or design student who did not include some aspect of social and environmental sustainability in their goal, and I choose to assume that this is the case for the vast majority of innovators anywhere. Whichever aspect of this issue you want to address you are going to have a huge impact on the system, so just remember you can make each and every design choice deliberate and reasoned to reduce your negative impact as much as possible and increase your positive impact as much as possible. 


Be kind to one another and may the force be with you.

francesca



Further reading:


Elizabeth, L., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P., & Lawrence, M. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review. Nutrients, 12(7), 1955.


Fardet, A., & Rock, E. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and food system sustainability: what are the links?. Sustainability, 12(15), 6280.


García, S., Pastor, R., Monserrat-Mesquida, M., Álvarez-Álvarez, L., Rubín-García, M., Martínez-González, M. Á., ... & Bouzas, C. (2023). Ultra-processed foods consumption as a promoting factor of greenhouse gas emissions, water, energy, and land use: A longitudinal assessment. Science of the Total Environment, 891, 164417.


Gibney, M. J., Forde, C. G., Mullally, D., & Gibney, E. R. (2017). Ultra-processed foods in human health: a critical appraisal. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 106(3), 717-724.


Leite, F. H. M., Khandpur, N., Andrade, G. C., Anastasiou, K., Baker, P., Lawrence, M., & Monteiro, C. A. (2022). Ultra-processed foods should be central to global food systems dialogue and action on biodiversity. BMJ Global Health, 7(3), e008269.


Monteiro, C., Cannon, G., Levy, R. B., Claro, R., Moubarac, J. C., Martins, A. P., ... & Canella, D. (2012). The food system. Ultra-processing: the big issue for nutrition, disease, health, well-being. World Nutrition, 3(12).


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


Popkin, B. M., Barquera, S., Corvalan, C., Hofman, K. J., Monteiro, C., Ng, S. W., ... & Taillie, L. S. (2021). Towards unified and impactful policies to reduce ultra-processed food consumption and promote healthier eating. The lancet Diabetes & endocrinology, 9(7), 462-470.


Salehi, Z., Malmir, H., Ghosn, B., Onvani, S., Ardestani, M. E., Feizi, A., ... & Azadbakht, L. (2024). Exploring the association between ultra-processed foods and COPD: a case-control study. BMC Pulmonary Medicine, 24(1), 1-10.



 

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