“Demonizing ultra-processed foods because of the processing, rather than their unhealthy formulation, could undermine public acceptance of processing as essential for the development of nutritious foods that are affordable, sustainable, safe from foodborne illness” and safe for storage and transport, Mark Messina, director of nutrition science and research for Soy Nutrition Institute Global, argued at FNCE.
For example, he explained, many plant-based meats created in recent years to more accurately replicate the eating experience of animal protein are considered ultra-processed under the NOVA classification system, which divides foods into four categories based on the processing they undergo.
Under NOVA, the first group includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, meat and milk, the second is processed culinary ingredients, like butter and vinegar, that are commonly eaten with group one foods. The third group is processed, and includes a combination of ingredients from groups one and two, chiefly for preservation, and the fourth is ultra-processed. This last group, in which most plant-based meat and milk fall, are made with non-home ingredients, chemicals, colors, sweeteners, industrial ingredients and are typically high in fat, sugar and salt, according to the NOVA system.
The products in this group are often associated with myriad health concerns, including diabetes, obesity, increased risks of cancer and more, based on quickly emerging research that prompted the US government to task the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee with considering how processing impacts growth, body composition and risk of obesity, and hosting a two day workshop examining ultra-processed foods.
‘Inconceivable’ that all ultra-processed foods impact health the same
While Messina does not dispute that many plant-based meats and milks are highly processed, he says the “very broad brush” with which the NOVA system paints products makes it difficult to understand their nutritional value and health impact – both detrimental and beneficial.
“It is inconceivable that all foods that are classified as ultra-processed have a similar effect on our health,” he said.
For example, he pointed to a study of 200,000 individuals who were followed for 24 to 40 years, of whom about 20,000 developed diabetes. The researchers found some ultra-processed foods were associated with a higher risk of developing type-two diabetes and some were associated with a lower risk.
This division was further supported by research that Messina helped conduct that compared the nutritional profiles of five soy protein-based burgers to those made with 80% lean beef and the nutritional profiles of two soymilks with whole and 2% cow milk.
The study found the energy density of the soy burgers to be similar or lower than that of beef, and that the soy-based burgers contained similar or higher amounts of protein, higher amounts of dietary fiber and lower amounts of fat than the beef.
Likewise, the study found soymilk had lower energy density than both whole and 2% cow milk and similar levels of protein. The soymilks also contained about 2 grams of fiber per service, whereas the cow milk had none.
“The soy products, despite being classified as ultra-processed, fared more favorably than the animal products,” he said.
But, he added, this difference is lost on most people given how processing currently is portrayed and how it overshadows nutrition facts.
As such, he argues more research into the mechanics of how processed food impacts eating patterns and health is “urgently” needed, as well as a more nuanced discussion about individual products’ nutritional profiles and potential health impact.