Are you opting for that new fake plant-based “meat” for your next Meatless Monday meal? If so, you’re not alone. Planetary health diet, plant-forward eating—whatever you call it, people are definitely moving towards plant-based meals. Even Canada’s new food guide is now promoting more plant-based protein to replace some animal-based foods in consideration of both human health and the environment. And there’s no doubt that filling our plates with more whole foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses and nuts and seeds—promotes good health and may fend off a host of diseases including heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes.
But, as the food industry responds to consumer demands for more plant-based foods, they’re dishing up a wide variety of ultra-processed products. Fake meat has become a very hot commodity—some vendors can’t keep up with the demand. (For example, Beyond Meat products, like their burgers, have been extremely popular.)
And, while one of the beneficial attributes of plant-based foods is supposed to be about eating whole foods, many plant-based meat replacements tend to be ultra-processed. And, as the ingredient lists keep getting longer and longer, the sodium counts climb higher and fibre counts plummet.
To help you identify an ultra-processed food, scientists have come up with this definition: “industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.”
If you spot ingredients such as various protein isolates and concentrates, hydrogenated oils and additives to increase the palatability or attractiveness—such as added flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming agents—you’re in ultra-processed territory.
Just check out this long ingredient list for a meatless meatball:
“Water, soy protein concentrate, canola oil, soy protein isolate, soy sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt), seasonings [modified cellulose, parmesan cheese (milk), sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, dehydrated red bell pepper, dehydrated carrot, spices, spice extracts, dehydrated garlic, dehydrated parsley], vitamins and minerals [thiamine mononitrate (b1), riboflavin (b2), pyridoxine hydrochloride (b6), cyanocobalamin (b12), niacin, calcium pantothenate, folic acid, magnesium oxide, iron phosphate, zinc gluconate, copper gluconate], caramel colour, salt.”
But don’t confuse ultra-processed with just processed. Products such as canned pulses (like kidney beans), canned fish (like salmon and sardines), plain yogurt and 100 percent natural peanut butter are all processed foods and are both convenient and packed with nutrition. In other words, some processed foods are fine if you choose carefully—it’s ultra-processed foods that you should limit.
Ultra-processed foods are being scrutinized by researchers with the results of numerous scientific studies labelling them as dietary culprits in promoting obesity and common chronic diseases. A new study of more than 44,000 French subjects, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people have a 14 percent higher risk of early death for every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods they consume. In this group, these foods accounted for just over 29 per cent of the total calories the subjects consumed over a day.
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But here in Canada, we’re filling our plates with significantly more of these foods. A recently-published investigation in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, from figures collected in 2004, states that ultra-processed foods make up almost half (45 percent) of the daily calories consumed by Canadian adults. That figure is certainly even higher now. Top this off with more research linking the consumption of these foods to the rise in obesity rates, and for health’s sake, it makes sense to eat fewer of these foods.
So, rather than trying to cut down on meat by filling your menu with vegetarian hot dogs, opt for whole foods instead. If you’re not a vegetarian, go for smaller amounts of meat at fewer meals, rather than choosing ultra-processed meatless selections for every meal. Make some whole plant-based foods to have alongside. For example, include a salad with some chickpeas and nuts or seeds tossed in and fruit for dessert. At other meals, opt for a dish like a bean-based chili rather than a version with meat.
Along with these fake meats, though, there are plenty of options readily available in the marketplace that you can use for your meatless meals—without spending hours slaving over your stove. But keep in mind that not all plant-based substitutes may be high in protein. Jackfruit, a popular fruit from the tropics that is often used to step in for meat, can be prepared to have a similar texture to pulled beef or pork, but it’s not high in protein. However, it does offer a range of other nutrients including vitamins C and B6 and plenty of potassium. Including a higher protein option in a salad or soup would then provide more balance to the meal.
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Here’s a sampling of those plant-based choices to go for that are protein-packed and not ultra-processed:
- Pulses (peas, lentils and beans)
- Tofu (made from soybean curds)
- Tempeh (made from fermented soybeans with a chewier texture than tofu)
- Seitan (made from wheat gluten with a similar texture to meat)
- Quinoa (the only grain with high-quality protein)
This plant-based trend seems similar to what happened during the fat-free craze in the ’90s when people shunned wholesome choices containing fat and filled up on nutrient-poor, sugar-laden fat-free cookies. Consider that when you cut down on a particular food, what you replace it with is the key to whether health benefits will be reaped.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice.