The authors of a new analysis published in Advances in Nutrition conclude that the classification of soy-based burgers and soymilk as “ultra-processed foods” is nutritionally unjustified and does not adequately evaluate the nutritional attributes.
The term “ultra-processed foods” (UPFs) was coined in 2009 by Brazilian researchers who developed the NOVA food classification system. NOVA classifies foods solely on the degree to which they have been processed. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and meat and milk, are classified as “group 1” foods. In contrast, nearly all plant-based burgers and plant milks, including those based on soy, are classified as UPFs or “group 4” foods defined as being the most processed. This is the same category to which snack foods, chocolate bars, and pre-packaged breads and cereals belong. High fat, sugar, and salt content is common among many of the group 4 foods, however uncharacteristic of these soy-based foods and beverages.
According to John Sievenpiper, M.D., Ph.D., who is with the University of Toronto and one of the authors of this new analysis, putting a cupcake and a protein-rich plant-based burger in the same NOVA category doesn’t make nutritional sense.
“It is hard to see how that type of generalization is helpful to a consumer trying to make healthful decisions for themselves and their families,” Sievenpiper said.
The high intake of UPFs worries nutritionists because their intake is associated with a range of adverse health outcomes. Common criticisms of UPFs are that they are energy dense, hyper-palatable and have a low satiety potential and high glycemic index, which refers to a rise in blood glucose levels. These characteristics may lead to excess caloric intake and possibly obesity. However, Sievenpiper and colleagues found that none of these criticisms apply to soy-based burgers and soymilk more so than they do to their animal-based counterparts, such as ground beef and cow’s milk, which are classified by NOVA as group 1 foods.
“Healthy eating habits are essential because how you nourish your body can have an influence on weight, sleep, exercise, mental health, and more,” said Jessica Kiel, Principal Scientist, Scientific and Clinical Affairs at Medifast. “Optimizing nutrient intake is one of the most critical pieces of overall health.”
Sievenpiper and co-authors, Mark Messina, PhD; John Erdman, PhD; Jessica Kiel, MS, RDN; and Patricia Williamson, PhD; challenge that classifying foods, such as soy-based burgers and dairy alternatives, based entirely on their level of processing may hinder their public acceptance and possibly deter consumers from switching to a more plant-based diet, which is recommended in moderation for personal and planetary health.
“There are many factors that can influence the healthfulness of foods,” Kiel said. “In fact, research has shown that the consumption of some foods categorized as highly processed can help meet nutrient needs and provide benefits that can positively impact health and wellbeing.”
Despite their classification as UPFs, soy-based products, such as burgers and beverages, can be part of a healthy diet. Not only do they provide ample amounts of protein, but the quality of soy protein is also on par with the quality of animal protein, containing each of the nine essential amino acids in amounts needed by the body. Plus, soy protein directly lowers blood cholesterol.
Read the full manuscript, “Perspective: Soy-based meat and dairy alternatives, despite classification as ultra-processed foods, deliver high-quality nutrition on par with unprocessed or minimally processed animal-based counterparts”, in Advances in Nutrition.
Soy Nutrition Institute (SNI) Global is a 501(c)(6) non-profit corporation that funds research and shares evidence-based information on the impact of soybeans and soy ingredients for human health and nutrition. For more information about the Soy Nutrition Institute Global, visit www.SNIGlobal.org.
This post is sponsored by SNI Global and U.S. Soy.