Media Wildly Misrepresents Findings of UPF Study in The Lancet to Slander Plant-Based Foods

Earlier this week, a study was published in The Lancet examining the health impacts of plant-sourced ultra-processed foods (UPFs). The results showed that while unprocessed plant-based foods decrease cardiovascular disease risk, ultra-processed plant-sourced foods may have the opposite effect.

However, the study has attracted a slew of misleading coverage from mainstream media outlets, with some articles giving the impression that the UPFs in the study were predominantly meat alternatives.

“…it’s incredibly unlikely that plant-based meat had anything to do with the results observed”

For example, a clickbait headline in The Telegraph falsely declared “Vegans are slowly killing themselves”, with the subheading “There’s nothing healthy about ultra-highly processed fake ‘meat’ products”.

Unsurprisingly, the writer of the article is a dairy farmer.

In reality, plant-based meats represented just 0.2% of the diets of the study participants, while foods such as packaged baked goods, French fries, salty snacks, confectionery, and even alcoholic drinks accounted for a larger share. While there is little doubt that these foods are unhealthy, they are consumed by the general population and not just vegans.

Experts respond

Experts from the Science Media Centre have expressed reservations about the study’s methodology, explaining that the huge diversity of foods included in the study makes it impossible to determine the impact of any individual food. They also point out that most ultra-processed foods are made from ingredients such as flour, oils, and refined sugar, meaning that “the separation between animal and plant-based UPFs is misleading”.

In other words, a study about UPFs in general (as opposed to plant-sourced UPFs) would likely have come to the same conclusions. The experts also expressed concern about the inclusion of alcohol, which is well known to have damaging health impacts, in the study. They find that “This study may lead to more confusion in the real world”.

Disinformation and Propaganda Meter that is hitting a full scale, showing a very high level of disinformation, overload of it, too much of it. Maximum value, off the charts. ,3d illustration
© GoodIdeas

Not all UPFs are the same

Another study published in The Lancet last year differentiated UPFs according to food groups. The study found that while some UPFs have very poor nutritional profiles, others can actually be beneficial. In fact, only soft drinks and processed animal meat were associated with health disadvantages, with no negative association found for plant-based meat.

Some UPFs, such as breakfast cereals, have been shown to reduce mortality risk, while some less processed foods are considered nutritionally poor; for example, cheese is high in saturated fat. In other words, highly processed foods are not always harmful, and unprocessed foods are not always healthy.

In fact, a systematic review published in the journal Nutrition Reviews in April found that some novel plant-based foods have the potential to be healthier than animal-based foods. In the US, some Beyond Meat products have been certified by the American Heart Association, indicating that they have benefits for cardiovascular health.

Beyond meat beef crumbles
© Beyond Meat

Plant-based meats are nutritious

Last year, a GFI Europe report analyzed recent studies to determine the nutritional profile of plant-based meat against EU guidelines. The figures, which were reviewed by food scientists and health experts, found that plant-based meats are a source of fiber, bioavailable proteins, and micronutrients, with low saturated fat. In contrast, animal meat lacks fiber, is high in saturated fat, and can contain traces of antibiotics and bacteria.

Stella Child, research and grants manager at GFI Europe, spoke to vegconomist about the new Lancet study.

“Plant-based meat made up just 0.2% of the ‘plant-sourced UPF’ category used in this study, most of which comprised products already well-known to be unhealthy, like cakes, pastries, and biscuits,” she said. “To put that into context, study participants ate 35 times more cake than plant-based meat, and so it’s incredibly unlikely that plant-based meat had anything to do with the results observed.

“Initial research using randomized controlled trials, suggests eating plant-based meat instead of conventional meat could reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as delivering other benefits such as improving gut health. While it’s important to continue studying the nutritional value of these foods, work must look specifically at plant-based meat rather than lumping it into a much wider category of unrelated processed products.”
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