The changes in eating habits in Brazil are not new and have been intensified since the end of the 20th century. As shown by the Nutritional Assessment of Home Availability of Food in Brazil, carried out by the IBGE, based on data from the 2017-2018 Family Budget Survey, there was an increase in the participation of ultra-processed foods and a decrease in fresh or minimally processed foods in the total of calories consumed in Brazilian households.
In general, the research identified that, on average, participation in the nutritional composition of foods in nature or minimally processed, rose from 53.3% in 2002-2003 to 49.5% and the participation of ultra-processed products, which was 12.6%, rose to 18.4% in the current edition of the survey.
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The current Brazilian food system is the result of a productive restructuring that began in the 70s and intensified from the 90s, in which it structurally integrates production and supply to the financial capital, which starts to command this entire system.
This financialization of the agrifood system led to structural changes throughout the entire chain, some of them such as: the production of commodities instead of food; the increase in the financialization of land and nature; the volatility of food prices from speculation; supermarkets as the main means of supplying the food, hygiene, cleaning and housewares segments; the diminishing role of other forms of commercialization such as open markets, municipal markets, etc.; and the increased availability of ultra-processed foods to consumers.
The restructuring was also accompanied by changes in the diners themselves. The new consumption patterns achieved made consumers re-equate their lives based on these transformations in the agri-food system and by the compression of space and time in an increasingly urbanized society that reinforces inequalities, that is, re-equating the fulfillment of their needs of the stomach and the imaginary from its position in society.
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In this sense, there was the emergence of new forms of consumption, the increase in the availability of food – especially food with a longer shelf life -, a homogenization of products and their continuous availability. In effect, this system resulted in the disappearance of local particularities in culinary systems, the incorporation of cultural traits and elements in their circuit and also the dissemination on a global scale of certain products.
This change in taste and the new food availability resulted in a decrease in the consumption of socially referenced foods, in natura and minimally processed foods, and in an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods have become a fertile field for expanding the markets of multinational companies, due to the homogenization and cheapness of their production, the ease of transport and storage, and the increase in the variety of products based on minimal changes in their composition.
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This process resulted both in an increase in the availability of ultra-processed products, a greater stability in their prices, in market variations and in a downward trend in their prices compared to fresh or minimally processed foods. According to a survey published in Public Health Nutrition Magazine, in 2026, ultra-processed foods will match the prices of fresh or minimally processed foods, and in 2030 they will be cheaper, R$4.34 per kilo, against R$5.24 for fresh or minimally processed foods.
the crisis we live
With the current sanitary and economic crisis, the tendency to substitute fresh food for ultra-processed food has intensified, a process resulting from factors such as: the greater vulnerability of families to the prices practiced in supermarkets; the increase much higher than inflation in the price of fresh food, such as rice, beans, fruits, vegetables and legumes; Foods with greater integration with the global chain, such as ultra-processed foods, have their price and availability less affected by these variations compared to fresh and minimally processed foods, due to the volume of their production, the proximity of processing and industrialization. with urban centers and for their forms of storage and distribution.
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The increase in the consumption of ultra-processed products was also related to factors other than the production and supply system. Social isolation and the crisis brought fear of the possibility of lower consumption patterns for the more affluent, which made ultra-processed products a fertile ground for the storage and maintenance of their affluent consumption.
Another important element is meeting the needs of the social imagination through the association of food with the idea of comfort, increasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods such as chocolates, ice cream and other foods as an encouragement to the current situation. On the other hand, the crisis brought with it the fear of hunger in a more concrete way for the poorest population, the loss of income associated with the increase in food prices can substantially modify consumption.
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According to the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Protection (IDEC), the consumption of ultra-processed products among Brazilians aged 45 to 55 jumped from 9% to 16% between 2019 and 2020; among respondents aged 18 to 55, in the pandemic, the consumption of savory snacks and crackers increased from 30% in 2019 to 35%; margarine, mayonnaise, ketchup and other sauces from 50% to 54%; among those who studied up to elementary school, the consumption of sausage and other sausages jumped from 24% to 33%. Regarding the decrease in the consumption of fresh food, the survey found that in the interior municipalities it went from 68% to 62%, whereas, in the Northeast, it went from 72% to 64%.
As can be seen, it brought new elements that intensify the worsening trends and inequality in food consumption. The variation in the prices of fresh foods such as tubers, roots, vegetables, greens and fruits directly affected the consumption of these foods.
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If the increased consumption of ultra-processed products was already a reality, the pandemic accelerates this trend even more. This means that it can reinforce food inequalities and cacophony, leaving the poorest population to achieve consumption and food security on narrower margins.
*Olivio José da Silva Filho is a gastronome, a doctoral candidate in Social Policy at the University of Brasília, a militant of the Popular Youth Movement and of the Popular Consultation.
**This is an opinion piece. The author’s view does not necessarily express the newspaper’s editorial line Brazil in fact.
Edition: Marcia Silva