Why some of the of the most ultra-processed foods are -wait for it- plant-based

Call me a cynic but I am now wondering if we are heading into fad territory in terms of all these plant-based commercial food products. Before you stop reading my post, hear me out. I’m not saying that plant-based foods are a fad. On the contrary, scientific research points to the huge number of health benefits linked to eating more plant-based foods.

Filling our plates with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses and nuts and seeds promotes good health and helps to fend off common chronic diseases. The Mediterranean diet is a perfect example. But much in the same way that we’ve seen various food trends arise, I feel as though we’re heading in the similar direction with so-called good-for-you plant-based products.

We tend to get a message and then go whole hog (sorry- I couldn’t resist!) in that direction.

Decades ago when oat bran was found to be helpful in lowering blood cholesterol, we saw an explosion of products containing oat bran on supermarket shelves. Sugar and salt-laden products like oat bran cookies and chips were everywhere and then one study came out with a negative result and thankfully that put a halt to the oat bran madness. Gluten-free products have also been given the same treatment. While gluten-free foods have been a boon for those requiring a gluten-free diet, gluten-free ultra-processed foods, with very little, if any, nutritional value have flooded the marketplace.

Now I think we’re seeing this with an assortment of plant-based commercial food products. Clients are coming into my office with labels of various plant-based foods and asking my opinion about them. It seems as though the ingredient list on these products keeps getting longer and longer. Sodium counts keep climbing higher while fibre counts plummet. One of the beneficial attributes of plant-based foods is supposed to be about eating whole foods, not these ultra-processed offerings with ingredient lists that could fill a page.

Ultra-processed foods are linked to a higher risk of various diseases and just because a food product is devoid of animal ingredients, it doesn’t make it any healthier.

This trend first seemed to be happening with non-dairy milk alternatives. The dairy case was being stocked with many dairy-free beverages, loaded with sugar and not much nutrition. That’s not to say that there aren’t many nutrition-packed non-dairy alternatives available. Various people turned away from cow’s milk because of environmental concerns but, in fact, some of these non-dairy products are costlier to the environment than dairy products. And when you compare them nutritionally, the dairy products rank higher than these particular non-dairy beverages.

Now it’s happening in a major way with meatless alternatives. Meatless meatballs and burgers filled with ingredients such as soy protein concentrates and isolates and various types of colourings may be fine as an occasional convenience food, especially if you’re a vegetarian or vegan. But if you’re looking for meatless meals for health’s sake, don’t be fooled into thinking these options measure up to eating pulses such as lentils and beans. A homemade bean patty, or even some commercial ones, isn’t in the same league as these ultra-processed fake meats. Yet somehow we’ve been getting that message.

Just check out the ingredients and the nutrition in these A & W burgers below.

Here’s the wildly popular Beyond Meat burger with its whopping 1110 milligrams of sodium.

Now check out their Buddy Burger:

If you’re not a vegetarian, eating smaller amounts of meat, rather than going for ultra-processed meatless selections, makes more sense health wise. If you’re a meat eater and want to cut down on animal foods, have the meat burger and then choose some whole foods for your meatless meal.

Ultra-processed foods, plant-based or not, are still ultra-processed.

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Categories: Food Trends, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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5 Comments on “Why some of the of the most ultra-processed foods are -wait for it- plant-based”

  1. Jennifer
    January 16, 2019 at 10:57 am #

    Possible typo in the body of article, meatless burger has 110 mg of sodium or 1110?

    Such a good point, aim should be to eat real food, meat, fruit, milk and vegetables, they don’t come in a box or have an ingredient list, they are what you see

    • January 16, 2019 at 11:15 am #

      Thanks so much, Jennifer! I’ve corrected the typo! Yes, real food is what we should aim for and only have these options occasionally. We need to rid them of their health halo!

  2. Suzanne
    February 10, 2019 at 8:45 pm #

    I just wrote a post about how I came to see how addictive ultra-processed foods are. Realizing that nutrition is more than the number of calories or the breakdown of carbs, fats, etc. but is also about how the food item was created has been eye-opening.

    • February 11, 2019 at 8:17 am #

      Suzanne, it has been quite a journey you have been on! Yes, having homemade eats is definitely more than just about your carbs, protein and healthy fat. And yes, enjoying your efforts with others is key!


  1. Stuffed Peppers – a plant-based recipe | Enlightened Eater - January 18, 2019

    […] my last post, the issue of ultra-processed plant-based foods was on the table. While there are commercial […]

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