Op Ed: Churchill Fellow Jenny Chapman on Understanding Nuances Around the Ultra Processed Foods Debate in Plant-Based Meats

Jenny Chapman, Churchill Fellow and food systems researcher, recently published a report to support plant-based meat companies in navigating the “ultra-processed foods” debate.

Jenny Chapman has a degree in Biology from the University of Oxford, a Masters in Taxonomy from Imperial College London, and a lifelong love of the natural world. Her desire to solve the world’s most pressing problems and passion for using science and evidence to improve the lives of humans and non-human animals led her to research safe, healthy, sustainable and ethical protein sources. Jenny was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2023 to investigate the adoption, acceptance and trust of plant-based meat.

In this piece, Jenny describes why there is so much confusion surrounding the UPF term and what plant-based meat companies can do to advance trust.

We need nuance and understanding if we are to navigate the Ultra Processed Foods debate

By Jenny Chapman

Last week I went to see the new Mean Girls film. In one of the opening scenes (I’m not giving anything away here – I promise!) you see a group of high-school students chatting in a canteen, their lunches on the tables.

One of them was drinking a carton of oat milk. Now, I know this isn’t world-changing, but I still felt it was significant – someone, somewhere had made a deliberate choice to normalise a plant-based alternative to an animal product.

Historically, we’ve seen backlash when plant-based alternatives are introduced. When margarine was invented as an alternative to butter in the late 1800s it was described as a “mechanical mixture” made through “the ingenuity of depraved human genius”!

Quorn foods on table spread
© Quorn

Some hesitation is, understandably, due to ‘food neophobia’ – we’re hard-wired to not want to try new foods until we know they’re safe. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. But there’s also plenty of messaging from the incumbents, concerned that new and better alternatives will displace their legacy products. Often this messaging plays into food neophobia fears, through the use of terms like “fake” or “artificial” or “unnatural” (despite good working definitions for these terms not existing!).

“…we’re hard-wired to not want to try new foods until we know they’re safe”

Now a new term has blazed into our vocabulary – “ultra-processed”. It was coined by Carlos Monteiro who was observing changes in the food system in his native Brazil. He was concerned that social life was being weakened, people weren’t cooking together and food customs and cultures were changing, all whilst obesity and diabetes rates were rising. He looked for a common enemy and decided on food made in factories by large companies – food you didn’t make at home in your kitchen.

So he developed the Nova classification, a way of identifying where and how a food was made. He called category 4 “ultra-processed food”, highlighting how it is branded, “packaged attractively and marketed intensively”.

Something that is often overlooked is that he explicitly discounted nutrition as being relevant to his classification! He even states this in the title of his seminal 2009 paper.

Vegfather plantbased ham on platter
© Vegfather

“Ultra-processed” does not equal unhealthy

However, since its inception in 2009, and increasingly since 2021, this socio-political framework has been misused, often wilfully, to imply that any food made in a factory is unhealthy.

Now, that is the case for plenty of items – crisps, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages to name but a few – but Monterio’s categorisation includes many healthier and more sustainable foods, in addition to medically important foods like infant formula, just because like so much of the food we eat is made in a factory. It also incorrectly assumes that any food made in a home kitchen – a chocolate cake, for example – is automatically healthy!

Studies have been done by well-meaning nutrition scientists who investigate the diets of people who eat lots of “ultra-processed foods” – but as we’ve seen, this means unhealthy junk foods are grouped with healthy products like fibre-rich bread, B12-rich oat milk and protein-rich plant-based meat. The results are – as you’d expect! – very mixed and have led to a lot of uncertainty.

More recent work has recognised the problematic heterogeneity of the category and has subdivided “ultra-processed food” into groups such as animal-based products, breads and cereals and plant-based alternatives to conventional meat, eggs and milk, finding poorer health outcomes with the former but not the latter two groups.

A spread of Planted plantbased products
© Planted

This improper use has, quite understandably, resulted in a lot of confusion. Many nutritionists are concerned that blanket calls, some of which are coming from politicians, to “stop eating ultra-processed foods” are dangerous in that they nudge people away from healthier and more nutritious foods. There’s also the worrying classism in messages that you must cook all your food from scratch.

My research has focused on the messaging that plant-based meat products are “ultra-processed”. Can I make them at home? No. Are they healthy? Well, they’re certainly significantly healthier than the processed meat products they intend to replace!

I’ve written a report aimed at plant-based meat companies to help them understand the nuance and navigate the messy “ultra-processed” debate and with recommendations for what to do next.

Advice for plant-based meat companies

Given that so much of the messaging plays into fears around food neophobia, companies must proactively address these concerns. Historically, we’ve overcome fears around new foods (look at how margarine is widely consumed nowadays!) by actively normalising products.

My report makes recommendations directed at a number of key stakeholders – government departments, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the media and academics.

Many of the recommendations are aimed at plant-based meat companies. These include actively and transparently communicating the evidence-based health and sustainability benefits of their products as well as how they are made and what they contain, in order to grow and retain consumer trust.

Cover of report on UPF foods vy Jeny Chapman
Image courtesy of Jenny Chapman

My research found a number of ways companies can enact these recommendations. These include:

  • Facilitating constructive dialogue by inviting and responding to questions from consumers
  • Openly addressing “ultra-processed food” concerns to counter misinformation through clear, jargon-free information on product websites about how products are made
  • Publishing thorough FAQs, with claims backed up by the latest evidence
  • Writing clearly about ingredients consumers may not be familiar with
  • Training staff to understand the origins and misuse of the term “ultra-processed food”
  • Seeking to get their products accredited to highlight specific health benefits

Additionally, plant-based meat companies can accelerate the normalisation of their products by being proactive in working with food service companies and supermarkets to get healthier and more sustainable products into meals. I’d love to see plant-based meat companies partner with chefs schools and catering colleges. It’d be great if plant-based meat companies opened their doors to show journalists and the public the amazing technology behind their products, normalising the safe processes that are behind the products on the shelves.

So, perhaps if there’s a third Mean Girls film I do hope it’ll feature the cast enjoying a plant-based burger to further normalise the consumption of products that are better for people and the planet.

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