Is plant-based meat ultra-processed?
Plant-based meat is one of the product categories consumers most associate with being ultra-processed, but research has found it has several health benefits. So what does this mean? We take a look at the science.
Many consumers are worried about ultra-processed foods and health, and as a result some question the ‘healthiness’ of plant-based meat. However, plant based meat is very different from many kinds of food in this category, and the best evidence we have says that the processing used to make plant-based meat can actually improve its nutritional profile.
Below is a rundown of the science (as of November 2023) on ultra-processed foods, and how this relates to plant-based meat.
Is plant-based meat ultra-processed?
Just as with conventional meat products, there is a lot of variation in the level of processing different plant-based meat options undergo. Some products available in Europe today fit the Nova 1 ‘minimally processed’ definition, while others fall into the Nova 4 ‘ultra-processed’ category.
But these classifications tell us very little about the nutritional content of these options. In the table below, we compare plant-based meat and processed conventional meat against some of the features most commonly used to describe ultra-processed foods based on averages for these products. From this, it is clear that they do not neatly fit. Plant-based meat is not alone here, and several nutrition organisations have raised concerns that this categorisation system could unfairly bias people against healthy and accessible foods like wholemeal bread and fortified cereals.
Plant-based meat is rarely mentioned in landmark studies on UPFs, and in studies breaking down impact by food group, UPFs providing a source of fibre, such as plant-based meat were associated with reduced health risks. Given plant-based meat is so different in its nutritional makeup from the ‘average’ ultra-processed food, it seems unlikely the same findings can be generalised.
While more research is needed, studies that do focus on plant-based meat have found that eating it in place of conventional animal meat could:
Not all ultra-processed foods are created equal
As seen in the table above, the nutritional characteristics of foods within the ultra-processed category vary significantly, meaning studies based on these nebulous definitions risk missing important nuances in what is actually causing the negative outcomes associated with the ultra-processed group as a whole.
A study published in The Lancet breaking down ultra-processed foods by sub-category found that the processing level was not associated with harmful outcomes for most of the food groups usually associated with being ultra-processed. They did not find any evidence that the processing level of sweets and desserts, ready meals, savoury snacks and plant-based meat had any bearing on health outcomes. In simple terms we can interpret from this that processing level in these categories didn’t meaningfully change the risk associated with most ultra-processed products: a homemade cake and an ultra-processed cake would carry the same health implications.
The study even found that certain ultra-processed foods such as bread and breakfast cereals were correlated with positive health outcomes, which researchers suggested could be attributed to their high fibre content.
Only two categories of ultra-processed foods explored in the study were significantly associated with negative health outcomes: processed conventional meat and sugary and sweetened drinks.
The health impacts of processed and ultra-processed meat
The conventional meat that plant-based meat often replaces makes up a sizeable chunk of the ultra-processed foods eaten in Europe, and the above-mentioned study was not the only one to identify the specific link between high consumption of processed conventional meat with increased health risks. Studies using the NutriNet Sante and Nurses Health Study one and two cohorts also found these associations.
Importantly, evidence on the harms of red and processed meat is not only derived from broad studies looking at ultra-processed foods. Studies looking solely at red and processed meat offer even more reliable evidence, as they are based on more concrete definitions. Systematic reviews (the gold standard for scientific evidence) have found associations between processed meat and major drivers of diet-related ill health in Europe including heart disease (the largest cause of death in Europe) and diabetes, as well as bowel cancer, (the second most prevalent cancer and the second largest cause of cancer-related death in Europe).
How processing can improve the nutritional value of plant-based meat
Research has found that the way that plant-based meat is made can actually improve various aspects of its nutritional profile, which will likely be of growing importance as we transition towards more plant-based eating patterns.
The bioavailability of a nutrient describes how easy it is for the body to break down and use. Plant sources of protein can be less bioavailable, but certain processing methods used to make plant-based meats improve this. Research suggests fungi and algae protein sources have equivalent bioavailability to animal sources.
The reason for differences in bioavailability between plant sources of protein and other sources like fungi, algae and animals are so-called ‘anti-nutrients’ – chemicals that plants produce as a defence mechanism to reduce the digestibility of the nutrients within them.
The processing techniques used to make plant-based meat can offer advantages in bioavailability compared with their raw ingredients by reducing the presence of these anti-nutrients and enhancing other features that improve bioavailability and other important qualities.
Complete proteins and enhanced amino acid profiles
Proteins are made from building blocks called amino acids. Some of these we can make ourselves, and some we must get from the food we eat (known as ‘essential amino acids’). Not all proteins are created equal – and it is important to ensure that across the protein sources someone eats, all essential amino acids are covered.
Protein from animals and fungi are ‘complete’ – meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids – but this is not always the case in protein from plants.
In humans, there are 20 types of amino acid, 11 of which the body can make itself and nine of which need to come from food. Most plant-based protein sources, such as beans or gluten in bread, are not complete protein sources by themselves. However, many popular simple meals like bean stew with bread combine these, and therefore provide all of the essential amino acids.
However, some plant proteins are complete – and these are often the proteins used as the basis for plant-based meat, soy and quinoa are two examples. Products made from fungi like mycoprotein are also sources of complete protein.
Plant-based meats are also able to use blends of different kinds of protein to achieve an optimal amino acid balance. One example used is the combination of protein from cereals and pulses. Cereals are usually low in lysine while pulses tend to be low in cysteine and methionine – but a combination of wheat and pea protein can provide a complete amino acid profile.
Micronutrients and fortification
At present, the micronutrient profiles of plant-based meats vary a lot, and this is a growing area of focus within the sector. Fortification has been identified as an important opportunity to facilitate the transition towards healthier, more sustainable diets.
Even in Europe, deficiencies in certain nutrients are surprisingly common. While many of these stem from not eating enough fruits, nuts and vegetables, as diets become increasingly plant-based, more attention may need to be paid to those nutrients that are currently provided primarily by animal products, such as iron, zinc and B12. Like with protein, the bioavailability of nutrients is an important consideration in plant-based foods.
Plant-based meat options with very good micronutrient bioavailability are already available, such as those made from mycoprotein, and research is also ongoing to further improve ingredients made from plants. Progress has been made already, with some plant-based products such as the Impossible burger (not yet available in Europe) containing plant sources of iron with equal bioavailability to that of conventional meat.
What exactly is an ultra-processed food?
The question of whether a given food is ultra-processed does not have a hard and fast answer. The term ultra-processed is widely used, but not well understood either by experts or the general public. Indeed, a study asking health experts and food industry specialists to categorise foods as ultra-processed or not found only 32-34% agreement.
Processing is a general term, ranging from something as simple as chopping to more complicated processes like fermenting, pasteurising, extruding or distilling. The processing level of foods is usually determined by the Nova classification system, developed by Brazilian researcher Carlos Augusto Monteiro in 2009. Nova is not an acronym, but it is often written in all capitals.
The following is a simplified outline of the Nova category definitions:
- Nova 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Minimal processing includes the removal of inedible or unwanted parts of a food source. Nothing is added to the original food in this category.
- Nova 2: Processed culinary ingredients. Substances made from group one foods or from nature that are processed for use in cooking. These foods are rarely eaten by themselves.
- Nova 3: Processed foods. Foods from group one that have been processed and/or combined with foods from group two, or group two foods that have been further processed into a final product that is ready to cook or eat.
- Nova 4: Ultra-processed foods. Foods that have been made using a series of processing steps, including the addition of artificial ingredients, which usually contain few or no intact group 1 foods.
You may notice that without the examples of foods often given alongside these definitions, it can be incredibly difficult to place many foodstuffs in a category with certainty. And even for basic foods there is a lot of confusion. Plain yoghurt, for example, is usually categorised as Nova 1, even though it contains ingredients such as lactic acid and it is fermented – aspects that would seem to place it in Nova 3. Likewise, canned chickpeas are placed in Nova 3, the same category as processed meat like sausages and bacon – even though these foods have wildly different nutritional characteristics.
Doesn’t plant-based meat have lots of ingredients and additives?
Most of the food in supermarkets, including both conventional and plant-based meat products, contain additives. All food additives used in Europe must meet stringent food safety criteria, requiring a large body of high-quality evidence in order to be approved for use. However, recently some concerns have arisen that certain additives may have previously undiscovered effects.
Preservatives, emulsifiers, gelling agents, thickeners and sweeteners are some key groups that are often discussed in these contexts.
Preservatives are important for improving shelf life and reducing food waste. Salt is a simple preservative but other ingredients are also used for this purpose. Recent research has found that added nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines, which are most commonly used in processed conventional meat products, may be linked with increased cancer risk.
Emulsifiers are the most commonly used additive group in all foods. In plant-based meat, they are used to create a juicy meat-like texture. Emulsifiers are found naturally in many whole foods such as eggs, seeds and legumes, and also frequently made within the body.
Research has suggested emulsifiers may contribute to some of the negative health correlations seen in studies on ultra-processed foods, but the studies underpinning these claims have been subject to substantial expert criticism.
Some of the most common emulsifiers discussed and/or used in plant-based meat, and the research into their specific health impacts, are as follows:
- Xanthan gum: As a long-standing and frequently used emulsifier, Xanthan Gum has been explored in a variety of high-quality randomised controlled trials and follow-up real-world studies. A report compiled for the European Commission and published in 2017 found Xanthan gum to be very safe, with no notable adverse effects even in the highest exposure studies. This was found to be true across all age groups including children and infants.
- Plant-based lecithins: These are a well-established group of emulsifiers for which extensive health evidence is available from both randomised controlled trials and real-world data. Again, a review conducted for the European Commission and published in 2017 found them to be very safe, with no adverse effects noted even in the highest exposure studies. Allergenicity for those with a soy allergy was the main identified risk. Several preliminary studies have also identified potential health benefits of soy lecithin including lowering blood pressure, and reducing cholesterol, although these effects are debated.
- Methylcellulose and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose: These are well-researched and understood emulsifiers (also used for some other useful properties like gelling) that are not only considered safe but are thought to carry health benefits that have been validated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Methylcellulose achieved some notoriety in the United States after it was the subject of an attack ad against plant-based meat, which revolved around methylcellulose being difficult to spell. While it is quite a long word, the EFSA’s systematic review of trial data was positive, and found hydroxypropyl methylcellulose could help blood sugar management and reduce cholesterol. There has also been research recommending the addition of hydroxypropyl methylcellulose as an animal fat replacer to improve the nutritional value of conventional meat products.
- Plant protein isolates: Potato and fava bean proteins are commonly used as emulsifiers in plant-based meat. There are no noted health concerns associated with them, and preliminary studies have suggested they could be beneficial for slowing the rate of digestion and improving glycaemic control in foods.
Since plant-based meats are savoury products, sweeteners are rarely used in them. As an additive group, the health effects associated with artificial sweeteners have not been conclusively proven. A systematic review published by the World Health Organisation in 2022 found non-sugar sweeteners may have small short-term impacts on glucose metabolism and result in lower body weight when coupled with calorie restriction. However, it found no clear consensus on their long-term impact on weight loss or maintenance, and therefore recommended against using them for weight management.
So what does this mean for plant-based meat?
On the whole, evidence suggests that whether a plant-based meat product does or does not fall into the ultra-processed food category has little bearing on how healthy it is, and in fact, certain processing steps have been found to increase their nutritional value by adding or improving the bioavailability of important nutrients.
These studies do show that processed conventional meat specifically, unlike most ultra-processed food groups, is associated with specific downsides, supporting the argument that plant-based meat could offer people an easy way to reduce their overconsumption of processed conventional meat to recommended levels.
Plant-based meat and health
Learn more about the topic of plant-based meat more broadly, including the latest news and additional resources.