Are ultra-processed vegetable foods healthier than those of animal origin?

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Recent research has explored the question of the extent to which ultra-processed plant-based foods are a healthier alternative to certain animal-based foods.

The study is the work of scientists from the Rovira i Virgili University (URV) in Tarragona, the Pere Virgili Health Research Institute (IISPV) in Tarragona and the Network Biomedical Research Center for Pathophysiology of Obesity and Nutrition (CIBEROBN), in Spain.

The results of the study show that some ultra-processed plant-based products have a better nutritional profile than their animal-based counterparts. However, these plant-based alternatives contain “significantly higher” amounts of sugar, salt and fiber compared to unprocessed foods.

The study also shows that plant-based alternatives to fish and meat are lower in protein and saturated fat. “You need to move towards a diet with a greater representation of plant foods, but away from ultra-processed foods: eat more legumes, nuts, whole grains, fresh foods…”, the researchers recommend.

The research team compared 922 food products with regard to two dimensions: according to their nutritional benefit and depending on the degree of processing of the raw material from which they are made. In terms of nutritional profile, they found that 68% of plant-based alternatives appear in the A and B categories on the Nutri-Score scale, which are considered healthier, while only 43% of processed animal foods have this classification. However, it should be taken into account that 75% of unprocessed foods of animal origin that have been analyzed fall into this category and are considered healthier than their plant-based alternatives in the case of fish and meat.

The same goes for foods that Nutri-Score classifies as less healthy, in categories D and E: while 17% of plant-based alternatives fall into this category, 35% of processed animal products do. Unprocessed animal foods appear less frequently in this category (13%), making them healthier by comparison.

“In general, plant-based alternatives have a good nutritional profile, but 36% of products sold in the Spanish market are considered ultra-processed foods,” explains Nancy Babio, co-author of the study. Take a veggie burger as an example, it has a healthier nutritional profile than its animal counterpart but is higher in protein and lower in salt and sugar compared to a piece of meat.

“Although the industry has tried to improve the nutritional profile of alternative plant foods, we must remember that these are still ultra-processed products,” warns Sara de las Heras-Delgado, co-author of the study. The research team concludes that due to the high level of processing they represent, vegetable alternatives require multidimensional evaluation to determine their potential impact on health.

In addition to Babio and De las Heras-Delgado, the studio also collaborated with Sangeetha Shyam, Èrica Cunillera, Natalia Dragusan and Jordi Salas-Salvadó.

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Members of the research team. From left to right: Natalia Dragusan, Nancy Babio, Sara de las Heras-Delgado, Jordi Salas-Salvadó, Èrica Cunillera and Sangeetha Shyam. (Photo: URV)

The study is entitled “Are plant-based alternatives healthier? A two-dimensional evaluation in terms of nutrition and processing”. And it was published in the academic journal Food Research International. (Source: URV)

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