The health dangers of ultra-processed plant-based meat substitutes

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Eating plant-based foods is often hailed as a healthier choice, but new research suggests that not all plant-based foods are created equal. While fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are beneficial, ultra-processed plant-based foods (UPFs) such as vegan meat substitutes, vegan burgers, vegan nuggets or sausages etc. might actually increase your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The study: What researchers discovered

Researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) and Imperial College London-UK analysed data from over 118,000 people to understand the health impacts of UPFs. Their findings, published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, revealed a surprising connection: while plant-based diets generally reduce disease risk, plant-based UPFs are linked to worse health outcomes.

Specifically, the study found that consuming plant-based UPFs was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of cardiovascular diseases compared to eating less processed plant-based foods. This increased risk was observed for both plant-based and animal-based UPFs, underscoring the importance of food processing in determining health outcomes.

Ultra-processed foods: What are they?

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations that include ingredients not commonly used in home cooking, such as artificial additives, preservatives, and sweeteners. These foods often have a high content of salt, fat, and sugar, which contribute to their long shelf life and palatability. Examples include packaged snacks, sugary drinks, and plant-based meat substitutes like sausages, burgers, and nuggets.

ultra processed
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Health risks associated with UPFs

Previous research has linked UPFs to various health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. This latest study adds to the growing body of evidence by highlighting the specific risks posed by plant-based UPFs.

According to Dr Eszter Vamos from Imperial College London, “While ultra-processed foods are often marketed as healthy options, this large study shows that plant-based ultra-processed foods do not seem to have protective health effects and are linked to poor health outcomes.”

Key findings: Impact on cardiovascular health

The study’s key findings include:

  • A 7% increase in the risk of cardiovascular diseases for those consuming plant-based UPFs compared to those eating less processed plant-based foods.
  • A 15% lower risk of mortality associated with cardiovascular diseases when plant-based UPFs were replaced with less processed plant-based foods.
  • A 13% reduction in mortality from all cardiovascular diseases when the dietary contribution of less processed plant-based foods was increased by 10%.

Why UPFs are harmful

The harmful effects of UPFs are due to several factors. Dr Fernanda Rauber, a researcher at USP and the study’s first author, explains, “Despite being plant-based, these foods can contribute to risk factors such as dyslipidemia and hypertension due to their composition and processing methods. Food additives and industrial contaminants present in these foods can cause oxidative stress and inflammation, further aggravating the risks.”

ultra processed
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The role of additives and processing

The additives and industrial processing methods used in UPFs can lead to health issues like oxidative stress and inflammation, which are linked to cardiovascular diseases. High levels of unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars in UPFs contribute to conditions like dyslipidemia, atherosclerosis, hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity, and metabolic disorders – all risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.

Guidelines for a healthier diet

Based on these findings, researchers recommend revising dietary guidelines to emphasise the importance of reducing UPF consumption, even if the foods are plant-based.

Dr Renata Levy from USP states, “Nutritional guidelines promoting plant-based diets should focus not only on reducing the amount of meat and other animal products people eat but also on the importance of the level of processing involved in the food, and avoiding UPFs.”

Practical advice: Making better food choices

To improve your cardiovascular health and overall well-being, consider the following tips:

  • Choose whole foods: Opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes over packaged and processed foods.
  • Read labels: Check food labels for additives, preservatives, and high levels of salt, sugar, and fat.
  • Cook at home: Prepare meals from scratch using whole ingredients to avoid hidden additives and unhealthy fats.
  • Limit processed alternatives: Be cautious of plant-based meat substitutes and other packaged foods marketed as healthy options but containing artificial additives.
  • Increase non-UPF intake: Incorporate more minimally processed plant-based foods into your diet to reap their full health benefits.

Rethinking plant-based diets

While plant-based diets have many health and environmental benefits, this study highlights the importance of considering food processing levels. Ultra-processed plant-based foods, despite being marketed as healthy, may pose significant health risks. By focusing on whole, minimally processed foods, you can improve your cardiovascular health and overall well-being.

The key to a healthy diet lies not just in choosing plant-based foods but in selecting those that are minimally processed. This approach will help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and support better health outcomes.

FoodHealthThailand News

Dr. Nikhil Prasad

Dr. Nikhil Prasad is an independent researcher, medical, pharma and health PR consultant, herbalists and phytochemical specialists and a medical and health writer for numerous international publications and sites including his own sites such as Thailand Medical News. He is based either at Sydney, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai or Bangkok.

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