Background: The consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased worldwide and has been related to the occurrence of obesity and other non-communicable diseases. However, little is known about the environmental effects of ultra-processed foods. We aimed to assess the temporal trends in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), water footprint, and ecological footprint of food purchases in Brazilian metropolitan areas, and how these are affected by the amount of food processing. Methods: In this time-series study, we used data from five Brazilian Household Budget Surveys (1987–88, 1995–96, 2002–03, 2008–09, 2017–18) to calculate GHGE, water footprint, and ecological footprint per 1000 kcal of food and beverages purchased. Food items were classified into NOVA food groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods (G1); processed culinary ingredients (G2); processed foods (G3); and ultra-processed foods (G4). We calculated the proportion each NOVA food group contributes to daily kcal per person. Linear regression was performed to evaluate trends of the environmental impacts across the years. Findings: Between 1987–88 and 2017–18, diet-related GHGE increased by 21% (from 1538·6 g CO2 equivalent [CO2e] per 1000 kcal [95% CI 1473·3–1604·0] to 1866·0 g CO2e per 1000 kcal [1788·0–1944·0]; ptrend<0·0001), diet-related water footprint increased by 22% (from 1447·2 L/1000 kcal [95% CI 1400·7–1493·8] to 1769·1 L/1000 kcal [1714·5–1823·7]; ptrend<0·0001), and diet-related ecological footprint increased by 17% (from 9·69 m2/1000 kcal [95% CI 9·33–10·05] to 11·36 m2/1000 kcal [10·91–11·81]; ptrend<0·0001). We found that the change in the environmental indicators over time varied between NOVA food groups. We did not find evidence of a change in the environmental indicators for G1 foods over time. GHGE from G2 foods decreased by 18% (ptrend<0·0001), whereas GHGE from G4 foods increased by 245% (ptrend<0·0001). The water footprint from G2 foods decreased by 17% (ptrend<0·0001) whereas the water footprint from G4 foods increased by 233% (ptrend<0·0001). The ecological footprint from G2 foods decreased by 13% (ptrend<0·0001), whereas the ecological footprint from G3 foods increased by 49% (ptrend<0·0001) and from G4 foods increased by 183% (ptrend<0·0001). We found no significant change in contribution by any other NOVA food groups to any of the three environmental indicators over the study period. Interpretation: The environmental effects of the Brazilian diet have increased over the past three decades along with increased effects from ultra-processed foods. This means that dietary patterns in Brazil are becoming potentially more harmful to human and planetary health. Therefore, a shift in the current trend would be needed to enhance sustainable healthy food systems. Funding: Science and Technologies Facilities Council—Global Challenges Research Fund.
The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 5, November 2021,