Are we misusing the term ‘ultra-processed’? Uncoupling UPF from nutrition

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Researcher Jenny Chapman's research builds on surveys suggesting that 'ultra-processing' associations are hindering adoption of plant-based meat alternatives. GettyImages/vaaseenaa
Researcher Jenny Chapman's research builds on surveys suggesting that 'ultra-processing' associations are hindering adoption of plant-based meat alternatives. GettyImages/vaaseenaa

Related tags ultra processed food NOVA classification processed food plant-based plant-based meat

The term ‘ultra-processed’ is increasingly used to describe the ‘unhealthiness’ of a product, particularly in the context of plant-based meat. But how processed a food is reveals nothing about its nutritional impact, contends new research.

Stop using the term ‘ultra-processed’ when talking about nutrition. This is the stance of researcher Jenny Chapman, who was recently awarded a Churchill Fellowship to investigate the adoption, acceptance, and trust of plant-based meat products.

Her findings, published earlier this month​, build on surveys suggesting that ‘ultra-processing’ associations are hindering adoption of plant-based meat alternatives. But according to Chapman, such associations should be completely decoupled from nutrition.

“Public discourse focusing on the ‘ultra-processed’ nature of plant-based meat has reached a point of hysteria. Messaging has become worryingly detached from science and is leading to widespread misunderstanding that plant-based meat is unsafe and unhealthy,” said the food systems researcher. “This has no basis in fact.”

Consumers don’t want to eat ultra-processed foods (for very different reasons)

Chapman is betting on plant-based meat alternatives to have the most significant impact on alternative protein consumption, at least in the short-term. The sector is currently struggling with reduced demand, a trend frequently linked to price, taste and accessibility​.

But the researcher is unconvinced that hitting the mark on all three counts will be enough to achieve large-scale adoption. Having observed consumers identifying plant-based meat products as ultra-processed food (UPF), Chapman also noticed that such connotations were perceived to be extremely negative.

In qualitative research that took her from the UK to the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, Chapman found that the term ‘ultra-processed’ means different things to different people. “People regularly said they don’t like a food because it’s ultra-processed. Very rarely did anybody say they like ​a food because it’s ultra-processed.”

meat free supermarket coldsnowstorm
Consumers identify plant-based meat products as ultra-processed, and that connotation is extremely negative, found Chapman.GettyImages/coldsnowstorm

The researcher concluded that the vast majority of ‘ultra-processed’ associations were negative. But when asked exactly what about UPF respondents didn’t like, concerns surrounded products’ plastic packaging, links to the erosion of indigenous food cultures, and the number of ingredients on UPF product labelling.

“What is problematic about having a term that means different things to different people is that when disagreements arise, you often have people thinking they’re talking about the same concept, but actually they have very different ideas about what that concept means to them,” Chapman told FoodNavigator.

“That’s one of the reasons why there is a lot of confusion with the term, because it is being used by different people to refer to different aspects of food.”

What is ultra-processed food? And does it mean ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’?

The most common definition of UPF comes from the so-called Nova food classification system, developed in 2009 by Carlos Monteiro, professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The Nova system splits levels of food processing into four classifications, from raw and minimally processed foods; to processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed foods. This last category is an ‘industrial creation’ by definition.

What Nova can tell you is whether a food was produced in a factory, explained Chapman following her deep-dive into Monteiro’s work. What it cannot, or at least what is was never intended to do, is to give any indication of a food’s nutritional value, she continued.

“Monteiro’s work reveals his concerns with changes to social structures in Brazil. He is concerned that people aren’t spending time in the kitchen cooking anymore and has concerns about diabetes and obesity. He identified something he believes is responsible for all these issues: food produced in factories.”

The Nova system is therefore a sociopolitical framework, rather than a nutritional one, concludes Chapman. But that sociopolitical framework has since been applied to food by nutrition scientists, which the researcher argues was never the intention.

“It’s not a scientific definition…and doesn’t have a place in nutrition science. Monteiro’s original definition was never intended to group foods on the basis of whether they were healthy or not.”

Chapman stressed she is not critical of the Nova classification system, since it does a ‘great job’ in a sociopolitical context. “But the fact that it’s been misused has led to some really unfair criticism [of certain food products].

“If we’re interested in health, it doesn’t make sense to use a sociopolitical definition and framework in a completely different academic sphere.”

Uncoupling plant-based meat from UPF ‘unhealthy’ connotations

So how does all this relate to the plant-based meat category? Well, plant-based meat alternative products are produced in a factory, and are therefore inherently ultra-processed.

But if the Nova definition is relevant in a sociopolitical (rather than nutrition science) context only, Chapman argues that plant-based meat products cannot be tarnished as ‘unhealthy’ purely because they are ultra-processed.

Not all agree. The meat industry-backed Center for Consumer Freedom in the US, for example, is very public in its criticism of the plant-based meat industry, highlighted in a series of adverts in 2019 attacking ‘ultra-processed’ plant-based burgers hiding unappetising and unpronounceable ingredients.

Of course plant-based meat products can contain so-called unpronounceable ingredients, or E-numbers. But Chapman puts this down to the concept of ingredients lists, which she described as ‘a reflection of what governments feel it’s necessary for us to know about that food’, rather than being an ‘accurate scientific reflection of the molecules present’ in the food formulation.

A 'binder' ingredient on an ingredients list may concern consumers, but if shoppers were to understand that binders are used to stop certain foods from separating – just like an egg in a cake recipe – then that concern would likely die down. “There’s a lot that needs to be done to reassure people that their food is safe,” we were told.

Although food safety agencies are doing an ‘incredible’ job of ensuring our food is safe, Chapman’s research revealed a distrust in foods considered ‘unnatural’. “Plant-based meat companies need to reassure people that the ingredients being used are safe, that there’s nothing to worry about.”

What can industry do to better promote plant-based meat consumption?

Researcher Jenny Chapman believes that foods and diets that are both healthier and more sustainable should be promoted, irrespective of their degree of processing. She also contends that nuance should be communicated with care regarding nutrition and ‘ultra-processed food’.

Chapman’s guidelines for plant-based meat companies include:

  • Proactively and honestly address ‘ultra-processed food’ concerns to counter misinformation through clear, jargon-free information on product websites about how products are made;
  • Have online product pages that provide clear information about every ingredient to demystify their function;
  • Ensure all staff are provided training so they are confident in understanding the range of concerns that exist regarding ‘ultra-processed food’
  • And industry processionals, along with academics and policymakers should establish an interdisciplinary working group to find and implement ways to overcome misinformation regarding ‘ultra-processed food’ and nutrition to enable consumers to make better informed decisions about healthier and more sustainable foods and diets.

If we know what isn’t​ ‘unhealthy’, then what is​ ‘healthy’?

In recent years, research has not viewed UPF favourably. Examples include studies linking UPF consumption to poor health outcomes such as a greater risk of developing cancer​ and a higher mortality rate​.

A well-known research study conducted by nutrition and metabolism scientist Kevin Hall​, published in 2019, found that when people followed an ultra-processed diet, they consumed upwards of 500 kcal per day more than when they followed a diet free from ultra-processed foods, but controlled for the same amount of fat, fibre, sugar, salt and carbohydrates.

Not all UPF research findings are all negative

A recent study published in The Lancet concluded that UPF consumption can often be linked to multimorbidity.​ But not for all UPFs: no link was found between multimorbidity and consumption of UPFs including breakfast cereals, packaged bread, and plant-based alternatives.

As the only randomised controlled trial conducted to date specifically looking at UPF, the results are ‘interesting’, said Chapman. But the food systems researcher queries whether the two groups were consuming the same quality of nutrients. “Because there was so much more fibre in the non-UPF diet, Hall added soluble fibre to the drinks of the UPF diet.”

Chapman believes the study is a good opener to conversations around fibre content, speed of eating, and satiety. “We need to focus on speed of eating and fibre and how different foods make us feel full or not. For me, the science is very mixed about certain foods that people overeat and this is one of the criticisms we hear about processed foods. We need to look into this further.”

But ultimately, the UPF framework has transformed into a ‘reframing of junk food’, lamented the researcher. “If people want to eat a minimally processed whole food diet, I think that’s fantastic. But I also think suggesting that people should cook from scratch and buy their food from local green grocers is problematic, classist, and not attainable for the majority.

burger da-kuk
A plant-based meat product might be high in fibre with a good glycaemic index, but if you're eating it with chips and ketchup in a bun as a meal, aspects of that will be problematic, says Chapman. GettyImages/da-kuk

If the degree to which a food is processed does not indicate its ‘healthiness’, then how do we know what ‘healthy’ is?

Front-of-pack nutrient labelling can help, suggested Chapman. In the UK, where she is based, the voluntary scheme of choice is referred to as traffic light labelling. “I think it’s excellent, but would love to see the addition of a fibre component, or a glycaemic index.

“Foods in isolation are not healthy or unhealthy. It’s all about the context of somebody’s diet. A plant-based meat product might be really high in fibre, and so have a good glycaemic index. But if you’re eating it with chips and ketchup in a bun as a meal, aspects of that will be problematic.

“The focus needs to be on the meal… That nuance often gets lost in discussions.”

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