Meat and Fish at Hiller's Berlin

The Rise of Plant-Based Ultra-Processed Food

The collision of dietary dogmas is fascinating to watch. Especially in the early days of it. Right now, plant-based diets and ultra-processed foods are getting a whole lot of press. Plant-based is good. Ultra-processed is bad. So naturally, we see the meteoric rise of plant-based, ultra-processed food.

Writing in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wonders if this means that burgers will soon be extinct:

“No matter its cradle or condiment, the hamburger was with me for the long haul – I was sure of that.

“Until now.

“A few days ago I tripped across news that McDonald’s was testing a vegetable-based patty, coming soon to a griddle near you. The McPlant burger, they’re calling it – a McOxymoron if ever I’ve heard one. And McDonald’s is late to the game.”

A Health Halo for Plant-Based Diets

You can find an endless churn of researchers fishing for associations between plant-based diets and good health. Take, for instance, this paper in the March issue of Diabetes Care. Zhangling Chen et al found a correlation between adhering to a plant-based diet and a lower risk for developing diabetes. Voilà! Straying from a plant-based diet will score you a 12 to 23 percent higher risk for diabetes.

Likewise you can find papers suggesting a health benefit from plant-based foods for preventing cancer, heart-disease, and other maladies.

Bad Press for Ultra-Processed Foods

The vibes for ultra-processed foods are just the opposite. For example, the British Journal of Nutrition has a paper in its February issue providing a systematic review and meta-analysis of all the bad outcomes linked to ultra-processed foods. It’s quite a list – cardiometabolic risk, heart disease, stroke, depression, and death from all causes. Researchers found a link for all of these to consuming more ultra-processed foods.

Commercial Opportunity

Untroubled by the conflicting vibes, entrepreneurs smell an opportunity. Beyond Meat has struck deals to put its plant-based meat substitutes into McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell. Now you can give up meat for Lent and still have a burger. Have it your way has morphed into have it both ways.

The Times (London) calls it a vegan boom. Beyond Meat is now worth 8.7 billion dollars.

Net Health Impact?

Recent research in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that the net health gain for people consuming vegetarian diets might not be as great as promised. Vegans and vegetarians seem to be eating both unhealthy and ultra-processed foods more than meat eaters.

So maybe chasing a health halo doesn’t always deliver a health benefit. It does deliver more sales for food marketers and ever more food consumption for the average consumer. We have serious doubts that this will enhance human health.

Click here for perspective from Frank Bruni and here for perspective from Kathy Beerman, writing for the ASN.

Meat and Fish at Hiller’s Berlin, painting by Lovis Corinth / WikiArt

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March 7, 2021