Plant-based innovators push back at ‘ultra-processed, ultra-unhealthy’ critique


Food processing is virtually essential to the modern system of food consumption and distribution. From the cooking we do in our kitchens, to traditional forms of preservation or drying, ‘processing has been around forever’, according to Unilever’s Future Health and Wellness Director Amelia Jarman.

As a nutritional scientist, Jarman places little stock in the concept that ultra-processed foods are necessarily unhealthy. “The ultra-processed label is a general term with no real classification… It is an emotive term used to symbolize highly processed products,”​ the Unilever executive suggested at a recent industry event in London last week. “As a nutrition scientist I have one view… Processing per se isn’t bad. What is bad is food that has no nutritional value.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a commonly held position among food industry research and development professionals. Nevertheless, according to the widely cited NOVA definition, ‘ultra-processed food’ refers to the processing of industrial ingredients derived from foods, for example through extrusion, moulding, hydrogenation or hydrolysis. Ultra-processed foods generally also include additives like preservatives, sweeteners, colours, flavors and processing aids. One can certainly see why the latest wave of plant-based innovation is often added to this category.

Developments in the food industry have seen the proliferation of new plant-based meat and dairy substitutes that mimic the organoleptic properties of their conventional counterparts. Much of this new wave of analogue contains additives like texturizers or emulsifiers. Meat-like products are produced from a wide range of plant bases, including textured soy, quinoa, corn, and other cereals, vegetables or pulses. Plant-based drinks are frequently made from soy, almond, or rice. To produce a taste and texture that is akin to meat and dairy, significant levels of processing are generally required.

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