A recent report has called for a reevaluation of the term “ultra-processed” when applied to plant-based meat alternatives, urging nutrition scientists to refrain from using it due to its misleading connotations.
The term “ultra-processed food (UPF)” was originally coined to describe foods manufactured in factories by large companies. However, it has since evolved into a label associated with unhealthy eating habits, leading to misconceptions about the healthfulness of certain foods.
Published this week under the title “Processing the Discourse Over Plant-Based Meat,” the report highlights concerns that the language surrounding UPFs has become detached from nutrition science and is at odds with health and sustainability goals.
Jenny Chapman, a food systems researcher and author of the report, emphasized that the UPF categorization merely indicates that a food is produced in a factory, similar to many other widely accepted foods such as tofu, hummus, and oat milk. However, it does not provide information about the overall healthfulness of the food.
Chapman pointed out that the use of the “ultra-processed” label to discredit vegan foods masks the real impacts of food and perpetuates dangerous stereotypes. She argued that messages such as “avoid foods with more than five ingredients” are misleading and discourage consumers from choosing more nutritious and environmentally friendly plant-based options.
Contrary to misconceptions, recent research has shown that plant-based meats are not associated with increased risks of cancer, heart disease, or type 2 diabetes, unlike their “ultra-processed” meat counterparts.
To address these issues, Chapman proposes several actions to clarify messaging around healthy and sustainable foods, including training chefs in plant-based cooking, promoting plant-based meats in the media, and funding research to make vegan alternatives more affordable. Additionally, education initiatives targeting schools could help improve understanding of sustainable diets.
One significant challenge highlighted in the report is the powerful influence of the meat and dairy industries, which often promote their products through misleading health claims. Despite recommendations from health bodies to limit red meat consumption, campaigns promoting meat and dairy products continue to proliferate.
Chapman stresses the importance of clear, science-based communication to evaluate the role of different foods in our diets accurately. She emphasizes that evidence-backed nutrition profiles show plant-based meats to be healthier than processed meat products they aim to replace.
The report underscores the urgent need to address the devastating environmental impacts of meat and dairy production, including greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, water pollution, and antibiotic resistance. Calls for a transition to plant-based diets have been echoed by global health experts and environmental advocates, with several countries already taking steps toward a more sustainable future.