'Ultra processed': Meat alternatives still do more harm than good

'Ultra processed': Meat alternatives still do more harm than good
While plant-based burgers may be better for the planet than meat, they aren't necessarily better for people's health. Credit: Belga/ Siska Gremmelprez

With more and more people in Belgium scrapping meat and fish from their diets, the range of plant-based alternatives in supermarkets is expanding. But while this may ease the move away from meat, these products can do more harm than good.

The latest research by consumer organisation Test-Achats has confirmed the results of its previous test, showing that most vegetarian burgers are ultra-processed and do more harm than good to consumers' health.

"Too often, manufacturers add sugar, fat and additives to their burgers to flavour them and extend their shelf life," said Laura Clays, spokesperson for the organisation. As a result, vegetarian burgers fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, which are associated with a higher risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity."

Its most recent study of vegetarian burgers for sale in Belgian supermarkets last year found that only three of the 20 burgers tested achieved a higher score than 58 out of 100 when it comes to taste, composition and degree of processing. In 2021, nine out of 18 vegetarian burgers scored higher.

The composition of the veggie burgers was the most common reason for a low score, with Test-Achats finding 15 out of 20 burgers that were analysed were highly processed, usually to imitate the texture and bite of meat or fish. Most contain too much fat, too much sugar or too little vitamin B12.

Improved recipes and transparency

Diversifying diets with plant-based proteins is healthy in moderation, especially to reduce people's carbon footprint. However, the organisation stressed that it advises against eating these products more than once a week and instead supplementing diets with more natural products that provide all the necessary nutrients, such as chickpeas, oilseeds, nuts, spinach and pulses.

It also urges producers to improve their recipes and to include certain information, such as fibre content, which is currently often missing from the label. While this is not a legal requirement, eating plenty of fibre is key when looking to achieve a healthy eating style.

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"We call on producers to pay more attention to this so that people who choose a (more) plant-based lifestyle do not have to compromise on their health," Clays concluded.

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