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Scientific Updates /

Labelling soya foods as ultra-processed is unhelpful

27 May 2022

Type:

Original research

Introduction

The term “ultra-processed foods” (UPFs) was introduced for the first time in 2009. The NOVA food system classifies foods solely on the degree of processing. The NOVA system classifies foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, fresh meat and some dairy as unprocessed or minimally processed foods (group 1) whilst sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods and chocolate bars, are classified as UPFs (group 4).

Nearly all plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are also classified as UPF – group 4. This has resulted in a more negative perception of processed plant-based alternatives. Many individuals believe that the more processed a food product is, the unhealthier and the less environmentally friendly it is.

This narrative review explains why classifying foods, such as soya-based meat and dairy alternatives, solely on their level of processing would erroneously deter their public acceptance and may hinder individuals from consuming foods which can improve human health and reduce the environmental burden of the food system.

Messina et al. investigate this disparity by comparing:()

  • The highly nutritious and environmentally beneficial soya meat and milk alternatives, which, under the NOVA classification would be labelled as UPF with,

  • Their counterpart, meat and dairy, which would be classified as unprocessed or minimally processed.

This review provides an overview of the characteristics of UPF attributable to poorer nutritional quality and health outcomes and how soya meat and dairy alternatives, classified as UPF, do not possess any of the negative characteristics and in fact prove to be nutritionally and environmentally equal if not superior to their meat and dairy non-UPF counterparts.

How soya meat and milk alternatives do not fit the UPF characteristics

Soya meat replacements and soya drinks have been proven in clinical trials to result in better health outcomes including cholesterol-lowering and healthier body weight when they replace their meat and/or dairy counterparts.

Additionally, when compared to their less processed meat and dairy counterparts, soya meat and milk alternatives have been proven to be:

  1. Equal if not lower in energy density (depending on other ingredients added e.g. soya plant-based drinks can vary in added sugars, meat replacements use variable levels of oils and fats)

  2. Better nutritional profile with regard to saturated fats and fibre and equal for protein quality (mainstream soya milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamins D, B2 and B12)

  3. No more hyperpalatable

  4. Similar satiating qualities

  5. Similar glycaemic index (GI) and glycaemic load (GL) (low to medium depending on added sugars)

  6. Superior in environmental footprint for greenhouse gases, land use, biodiversity, water use, eutrophication and acidification of oceans

The authors note that the nutritional quality of soya meat and dairy alternatives, as with all processed foods, will vary depending on the ingredients used. Thus, nutritional labels should always be checked as some may have higher amounts of sugars, salt and saturated fats.

The lead author, Dr Mark Messina, comments that,

Admonitions against the consumption of products simply because they are classified as UPF are unwarranted and may impair society’s acceptance of plant-based diets

In an era of urgency to move populations towards more environmentally and nutritionally beneficial plant-based diets, making a simple switch to soya meat replacements and milk alternatives is a realistic and easy dietary change for most consumers to achieve. The processing makes for positive nutrient fortification and improved taste acceptance.

This publication echoes comments made by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) and the British Dietetic Association (BDA). Both the ASN and the BDA have acknowledged that the nutritional quality of a food needs to be considered rather than just the processing level as some UPF can in fact, through fortification, provide critical micronutrients lacking in the national diet and/or have been reformulated to specifically reduce negative nutrient e.g. salt and saturated fat associated with ill health.()

Conclusion

The authors conclude, that, relying solely on how processed a food is as a measure of nutritional quality is not accurate enough. It can be confusing and misleading for consumers and unfairly places soya meat and dairy alternatives in a negative light, when in fact they can be a perfect fit for the move towards sustainable diets.

References

  1. Messina M, Sievenpiper JL, Williamson P, et al. Perspective: Soy-based meat and dairy alternatives, despite classification as ultra-processed foods, deliver high-quality nutrition on par with unprocessed or minimally processed animal-based counterparts. Adv Nutr. 2022 Mar 23;nmac026. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmac026. Online ahead of print.
  2. Gibney MJ, Forde G, Mullally D, et al. ASN Commentary: Ultra-processed foods in human health: a critical appraisal. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;106:717–24.
  3. British Dietetic Association (BDA). Position statement: Processed food. BDA Jan 2021. Accessed May 2022. https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/processed-food.html

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