Plant-based and processed: Avoiding the next big health debate

2 Feb 2024

Calls for clarity around ultra-processed food (UPFs) and ongoing debates on potential classification may bring the health credentials of plant-based food under the spotlight, which is why education is so necessary.

Although there is no harmonised definition of what processed food is, it is widely accepted that it refers to a foodstuff that has been changed from its original, natural state. Processing does not necessarily, therefore, mean that a food type, plant-based or not, is unhealthy.

Plant-based and processed: Avoiding the next big health debate
© iStock/Aamulya

“It’s important to remember almost everything we eat—from frozen vegetables to bread—is processed in some way, and there is a huge amount of variation in the amount of processing used by producers to make plant-based meat,” Seren Kell, senior science and technology manager at nonprofit and think tank, Good Food Institute Europe (GFI) told Ingredients Network.

Manufacturers apply processing techniques to a foodstuff for a number of reasons. “Processing is not just used to make food tastier, it is also often used to make foods safer, add vitamins and minerals, and preserve food for longer to prevent waste,” says Kell.

Processing can provide benefits to the end product that are then passed onto the consumer. Fortification, preservation, and preparation are forms of processing that can provide added nutrition, a longer shelf life, and extra convenience.

Understanding UPFs and plant-based products

UPFs are foods that undergo multiple processes, such as extrusion, moulding or milling, contain many added ingredients, and experience high levels of manipulation. “While people often label plant-based meat as a UPF, comparing these products against the typical definitions of UPF, it’s clear they do not neatly fit,” explains Kell.

UPFs are those foods that are high in calories. “Plant-based meat is usually a source of fibre and is low in saturated fat, unlike most ultra-processed foods,” adds Kell.

The connection between processing and health, particularly following the prevalence of discussions around UPFs and how this links to plant-based products may now put meat-free items under the spotlight. Questions surrounding whether there is the understanding that processed equals bad and plant-based equals good, so the two cannot or do not mix, may increase.

The misconception that processing is inherently bad is prevalent among consumers. “But there has been a lack of clear communication to the public about what terms like UPF actually mean,” says Kell.

With rising consciousness and concerns, the UPF category is increasingly being challenged by a range of experts, and research suggests that the ultra-processing designation may not have much to say about how healthy a product is, Kell said. WHO research has challenged the assumption that all UPFs are bad for health—finding products such as plant-based meat are not associated with problems linked to UPFs such as fizzy drinks.

Nutritional value of processed foods

GFI’s recent Plant-Based Meat And Nutrition report outlines how researchers are pioneering new and improved processing techniques that can enhance the nutrients in these foods and help improve taste to make products more appealing.

“Like the differences between plain white bread and seeded wholemeal bread, the nutritional makeup of different types of plant-based meat can vary a lot—but on the whole, they have a good nutritional profile, particularly compared to the red and processed conventional meat they often replace,” says Kell.

Credit: © iStock/MTStock Studio© iStock/MTStock Studio

GFI’s report provides a snapshot of the current evidence, finding that plant-based meat is a source of fibre and protein and contains significantly less saturated fat than animal products. Initial studies suggest swapping plant-based for conventional meat could also help tackle many leading health problems, such as reducing the risk of heart disease and bowel cancer, improving gut health, and helping maintain a healthy weight, Kell adds.

A controversial reputation

“The controversy surrounding ultra-processing has led to a huge range of foods being tarred with the same ‘unhealthy’ brush, but new research is finding we need to look at this issue on a more granular level,” says Kell.

Embraced for its environmental benefits, plant-based meat causes up to 98% less climate emissions than conventional meat, uses less land to free up space for more nature-friendly farming, and helps tackle antibiotic resistance.

A recent paper published in the Lancet found that, while overall UPF intake was associated with poor health, certain foods that often fall into the category, including plant-based meat, were associated with positive health outcomes.

“If we’re going to enable plant-based foods to help large numbers of people switch to a healthier, more sustainable diet, we need to continue research and development (R&D) into these products,” says Kell. “However, we also need to ensure the conversation around ultra-processing is not misleading consumers.”

Clear communication quashes confusion

Although ever-evolving, shifts in the plant-based sector are expected to centre on education, communication, and reformulation to convey and develop a clear understanding of processed foods, particularly UPFs.

“There is a need for better-informed and more evidence-based discussion about UPFs, and businesses working in the plant-based space need to do more work to communicate the health benefits of their products to consumers,” explains Kell.

GFI’s report highlights that rapid advances are also taking place to develop next-generation products with a strong focus on health, adding vital micronutrients such as the vitamin B12 and iron lacking in many diets, and using new manufacturing techniques can enhance the nutrients within these foods. “Some of these new products are already beginning to make their way to market, and we expect this trend to continue throughout 2024,” says Kell.

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