Plant-based meats have found their place in the American diet. According to one survey, two in five U.S. consumers report eating them at least weekly.
At the same time, shoppers have conflicting feelings about whether plant-based burgers are healthy. In one survey, 39 percent of participants cited “healthfulness” as their top reason for buying plant-based meats. But another found 16 percent of respondents hadn’t even tried the alternatives, calling them too “processed.”
It’s no surprise then that consumers are confused. Experts tell us to eat a more plant-based diet but they also tell us to avoid anything processed. Meat alternatives can fall into both categories, so then, are plant-based burgers healthy or not?
Here’s what’s clear: To curb your climate impact, scientists agree that plant-based foods are a better alternative to beef and dairy, and need to account for most of what we eat to ensure a liveable future. But the healthfulness of plant-based burgers is more of a gray area, and it’s all because of the debate over what makes a food “processed,” not to mention the newer “ultra-processed” category.
Because everything from canned tomatoes to baby carrots is technically “processed,” many nutrition experts now call out ultra-processed foods as the stuff we really need to avoid. Minimally processed foods can form the basis of a healthy diet, while the latter should only be eaten in small quantities. But are plant-based burgers ultra-processed and — more importantly — are they healthy?
Can Processed Foods Be Healthy?
Almost half of all Americans worry that processed foods cannot be part of a healthy diet, yet at the same time, most of what we eat falls into that category.
The problem is “processed” is a somewhat meaningless definition. It includes just about anything that changes a food’s natural form — including cutting, cleaning, cooking, canning, freezing, pasteurizing, drying, dehydration, mixing and packaging.
Most experts can point to a number of healthy, minimally processed plant-based foods, like canned beans and rolled oats, for instance. Some nutrition experts also argue that unsweetened soy milk, soy yogurt and other nutritious dairy alternatives should also be considered “minimally processed.”
Over a decade ago, a team of researchers developed what’s called the NOVA Food Classification System to distinguish between different types of processed foods, and highlight a category of so-called “ultra-processed” foods. These foods are particularly unhealthy because of their high levels of added sugars and fats.
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
Ultra-processed foods have been altered in ways that make it impossible to discern the original whole foods that went into them. The most common ingredients of ultra-processed foods are fats, starches and sugars derived from high-yield plants like corn, wheat, sugar cane or beets and soy, as well as animal-derived ingredients from livestock raised on crowded factory farms. Ultra-processed foods also often contain additives meant to improve their taste, appearance, texture and shelf life.
The list of ultra-processed foods — both plant-based and not — is incredibly long. It includes soft drinks, candy, packaged breads and cakes, sweetened breakfast cereals, sausages, bacon and sugary, fatty and salty snacks — whether that be a technically-plant-based potato chip or a meat-based pork rind.
Are Ultra-Processed Foods Bad for You?
Even though consumers worry about processed foods in general, research shows that it’s the ultra-processed category that is the bigger problem.
One study followed more than 100,000 French adults for five years and found that those who ate more ultra-processed foods had higher cancer risks. Other health problems that have been linked with eating high amounts of ultra-processed foods include obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dementia, depression and heart disease.
Yet ultra-processed foods still dominate diets in much of the world. They account for 57 percent of calories eaten in the U.K. and more than 60 percent in the U.S. The reason why many people continue to eat them despite their negative impacts is likely because of their enticing taste. After all, they’re designed to make it hard to stop eating them.
One recent study measured the addictive properties of ultra-processed foods like potato chips, cookies, ice cream and fries, and compared their addictive nature to tobacco. The researchers argued that these foods can cause brain and mood changes, trigger intense cravings and make it difficult for people to quit them — even if they are facing life-threatening conditions made worse by their diets.
Yet not all foods categorized as ultra-processed have these harmful effects. For that reason, some nutrition experts argue that the term can result in consumers shunning the wrong foods. The processing is not the problem, they say, but the fact that these foods contain a lot of fat, sugar and salt — and consequently calories — while offering little nutritional value. Optimized for taste instead of nutrition, these products fail to make people feel full, which is part of why it’s so hard to stop eating them.
Are Plant-Based Burgers Ultra-Processed?
Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives come in many different forms, so it doesn’t make sense to categorize them all as one thing or another, despite the fact that some health researchers are lumping them together as “ultra-processed.”
Foods like soy milk, tofu and bean burgers are minimally processed and have just a few ingredients. Meanwhile, other plant-based burgers and meats do boast a much longer ingredient list — like protein extracted from soybeans or peas, salt, fats, sugar, artificial flavors, preservatives and other additives. It’s likely because of these ingredients that the NOVA researchers classified plant-based burgers as “ultra-processed.”
Yet these same researchers did not clarify whether tofu and tempeh should be considered “minimally processed.” The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada does put tofu in this category instead, however, pointing out that the processing has no adverse health effects.
There’s research challenging the blanket ultra-processed designation for plant-based alternatives too. One paper compared cow’s milk and beef with soy milk and burgers and found that the plant-based alternatives contain similar nutrients, fewer calories and even a little fiber.
Plus, one study suggests that replacing red or processed meat — which comes with its own health risks — with meat alternatives does not cause many of the concerns associated with ultra-processed foods. Yes, it’s a small study — just 36 people — but one of the few that looked at this very question. The researchers found that those who switched from meat to meat alternatives for eight weeks reported no negative health impacts, and even a little weight loss and lower LDL cholesterol numbers.
The bottom line is that replacing beef with most plant-based burger brands means you’re getting similar nutrients, for better or worse. Yes, lentils are healthier, but these plant-based burgers might just be a necessary tradeoff to help society eat a lot less meat. And that’s something researchers say we must do in order to move towards our climate goals, so the tradeoffs may just be worth it.
Caroline is a journalist and staff writer at Sentient Media focused on the intersection of animal advocacy, climate change, and plant-based innovations.