Are veggie burgers healthy?

Plant-based meats have found their place in the American diet. According to a survey, two out of five US consumers report eating them at least once a week.

At the same time, shoppers have mixed feelings about whether plant-based burgers are healthy. In one survey, 39% of participants cited “healthiness” as the top reason for purchasing plant-based meats. But another found that 16% of respondents hadn’t even tried the alternatives, calling them too “elaborate.”

It is therefore not surprising that consumers are confused. Experts tell us to eat a more plant-based diet, but they also tell us to avoid anything processed. Meat alternatives can fall into both categories, so are plant-based burgers healthy or not?

Here’s what’s clear: To curb climate impact, scientists agree that plant-based foods are a better alternative to beef and dairy, and must account for the majority of what we eat to ensure a livable future. . But the healthiness of plant-based burgers is more of a gray area, and it’s all because of the debate over what makes a food “processed,” let alone the new “ultra-processed” category.

Since everything from canned tomatoes to baby carrots is technically “processed,” many nutrition experts now define ultra-processed foods as the things we really need to avoid. Minimally processed foods can form the basis of a healthy diet, while the latter should only be eaten in small quantities. But are plant-based burgers ultra-processed and, more importantly, healthy?

Can processed foods be healthy?

Nearly half of all Americans worry that processed foods can’t be part of a healthy diet, yet at the same time, most of what we eat falls into that category.

The problem is “processed” is a somewhat meaningless definition. It includes virtually everything that changes a food’s natural form, including cutting, cleaning, cooking, canning, freezing, pasteurization, drying, dehydration, blending, and packaging.

Most experts can point to a range of healthy, minimally processed plant-based foods, like canned beans and oatmeal, for example. Some nutrition experts also argue that unsweetened soy milk, soy yogurt, and other nutritious dairy alternatives should also be considered “minimally processed.”

Over a decade ago, a team of researchers developed what’s called the NOVA food classification system to distinguish between different types of processed foods and highlight a category of so-called “ultra-processed” foods. These foods are particularly unhealthy due to their high levels of added sugars and fats.

What are Ultra Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods have been altered in such a way that it is impossible to discern the original whole foods that contained them. The most common ingredients of ultra-processed foods are fats, starches and sugars derived from high-yielding plants such as corn, wheat, sugar cane or beets and soybeans, as well as animal-derived ingredients from livestock raised on crowded factory farms. Ultra-processed foods also often contain additives intended to improve their taste, appearance, texture and shelf life.

The list of ultra-processed foods, both plant-based and non-vegetable, is incredibly long. It includes soft drinks, candy, packaged breads and pastries, sugary breakfast cereals, sausages, bacon, and sugary, fatty, and salty snacks, whether it’s a technically plant-based potato chip or a meat-based pork rind.

Are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

While consumers generally worry about processed foods, research shows that the ultra-processed category is the biggest problem.

One study followed more than 100,000 French adults for five years and found that those who ate more ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of cancer. Other health problems that have been linked to consuming large amounts of ultra-processed foods include obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia, depression and heart disease.

Yet ultra-processed foods still dominate diets in much of the world. They account for 57% of calories consumed in the UK and over 60% in the US. The reason many people continue to eat them despite their negative impacts is probably due to their enticing taste. After all, they’re designed to make it hard to stop eating them.

A recent study measured the addictive properties of ultra-processed foods such as potato chips, cookies, ice cream and French fries and compared their addictive nature to tobacco. Researchers have argued that these foods can cause brain and mood changes, trigger intense cravings and make it difficult for people to give up on them, even as they face life-threatening conditions made worse by their diet.

Yet not all foods classified as ultra-processed have these harmful effects. For this reason, some nutrition experts argue that the term can lead consumers to avoid the wrong foods. The problem isn’t the processing, they say, but the fact that these foods are high in fat, sugar and salt — and consequently calories — while offering little nutritional value. Optimized for taste instead of nutrition, these products fail to make people feel full, which is why it’s so hard to stop eating them.

Are plant-based burgers ultra-processed?

Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives come in many different forms, so it doesn’t make sense to classify them all as one thing or another, despite the fact that some health researchers are grouping them as “ultra-processed.”

Foods like soy milk, tofu and bean burgers are minimally processed and have only a few ingredients. Meanwhile, other plant-based burgers and meats boast a much longer ingredient list, such as soy or pea-derived proteins, salt, fat, sugar, artificial flavors, preservatives, and other additives. It’s likely that because of these ingredients, NOVA researchers classified plant-based burgers as “ultra-processed.”

Yet these same researchers have not made it clear whether tofu and tempeh should be considered “minimally processed.” The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada instead places tofu in this category, emphasizing that processing has no negative effects on health.

There’s even research challenging the ultra-processed blanket designation for plant-based alternatives. One article compared cow and beef milk with soy milk and hamburgers and found that the plant-based alternatives contain similar nutrients, fewer calories, and even some fiber.

Additionally, one study suggests that replacing red or processed meat, which carries its own health risks, with meat alternatives doesn’t cause many of the concerns associated with ultra-processed foods. Yes, it’s a small study — just 36 people — but one of the few that has looked at this very question. The researchers found that those who switched from meat to meat alternatives for eight weeks reported no negative health impacts, as well as little weight loss and lower LDL cholesterol counts.

The bottom line is that replacing beef with most plant-based burger brands means you’re getting similar nutrients, for better or for worse. Yes, lentils are healthier, but these plant-based burgers might just be a necessary compromise to help society eat much less meat. And that’s something researchers say we need to do to move towards our climate goals, so the tradeoffs may be worth it.

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