Ultra-processed plant-based foods

by Dr Shireen Kassam

I am probably preaching to the converted, but it is always good to be armed with the evidence. The demand and growth in the plant-based foods market has led to the inevitable abundance of plant-based alternatives to traditional and familiar foods.

Many of these are classified as ultra-processed and include biscuits, cakes, ice-cream, carbonated drinks, breakfast cereals and many ready to heat products, including pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes. However, it can sometimes be difficult to recognise an ultra-processed food. There is actually a classification system for foods called NOVA (the name, not an acronym) that categorises foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing, rather than in terms of nutrients. NOVA is now recognised as a valid tool for nutrition and public health research, policy and action. The 4 NOVA groups are shown in the table.

Group 1
Unprocessed and minimally processed
Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses. Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients.
Group 2
Processed culinary ingredients
Oils, fats such as butter, vinegars, sugars and salt. These foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with foods in group 1.
Group 3
Processed foods are products that are usually made using a mix of group 1 and 2 ingredients. The main purpose of the processing is to prolong the food’s life or enhance its taste. Most processed foods have 2 or 3 ingredients.
Group 4
Ultra processed foods
These usually contain ingredients that you wouldn’t add when cooking at home. You may not recognise the names of these ingredients as many will be chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives. These are industrial formulations typically with five or more ingredients. The main purpose of industrial ultraprocessing is to create products that are ready to eat, to drink or to heat.

The trouble with the typical Western diet is that the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet is overtaking the other categories. In the UK, >50% of what goes into our shopping basket is classified as ultra-processed. Only 28% of adults and 18% of children manage to eat the recommended 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day.

As more and more people make the necessary transition to a plant-based diet, food companies and outlets will rise to the challenge by producing more and more plant-based ultra-processed foods. This is already happening. There is no doubt that this will benefit the environment and the animals, but it will not benefit human health. The epidemic of non-communicable diseases caused by diet will continue.

How to recognise ultra-processed foods?

1) A long list of ingredients, usually at least 5

3) High fat, sugar and salt content is common

2) Ingredients you do not recognise and would not use in home cooking

4) The product is aggressively marketed and branded. There is no money to be made in marketing broccoli!

We now have a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating the detrimental effects of ultraprocessed foods in the diet, be it plant-based or not. In fact several studies have concluded that an unhealthy plant-based diet is just as bad for health as the typical Western-diet high in animal-derived foods and saturated fat. Diets high in ultra-processed foods are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, overweight/obesity and type 2 diabetes. These foods can contribute to shortening of telomeres (caps at the end of chromosomes), a sign of aging, and a reduced life expectancy.

So reserve these new plant-based processed foods for a treat only and do not make them part of your everyday diet.