Vegan meat substitutes may be unhealthier than their meat counterparts

High street brands often latch onto the yearly Veganuary, releasing new plant-based options.


Veganuary has caused a stir in the plant-based sphere, as thousands of people across the UK drop their regular diets to adopt a meat and dairy-free consumption plan.

High street brands often latch onto the yearly January event, releasing new plant-based options. Subway, for example, have released a new T.L.C (Tastes.Like.Chicken) option, while KFC have launched plant-based nuggets.

The meat alternatives prove popular as corporations look to tap into the market, but research has shown that they are unhealthy, and can be classed as 'ultra-processed' foods.

This was first identified by Brazilian academics as part of the NOVA classification.

Ultra processed foods are accepted by health experts to be unhealthy and probably addictive, and a reason behind increasing rates of obesity and poor health worldwide.

NOVA has four different classifications for food, 'Unprocessed food or minimally processed' being reserved for raw ingredients such as fruit and vegetables.

The second category is culinary ingredients, which covers the likes of flour and oil.

The third, processed foods, includes the likes of cheese and tofu.

The fourth and final category, being ultra processed foods, is reserved for a great deal of the vegan alternatives on offer from fast food chains and supermarkets.

NOVA describe this classification as: “in particular flavours, colours sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product”.

The research from NOVA suggests the swathe of vegan options readily on offer this month fit into this category, meaning they are often much unhealthier than their meat counterparts.

While a grilled chicken breast would count as minimally processed, or in some cases 'processed' if salt and oil is added, 'plant-based chicken goujons' can be classed as ultra processed, containing over 30 ingredients, including methylcellulose, maltodextrin and dried glucose syrup.

Despite this, the food industry has continued to push the products, with even the term 'plant-based' being adopted to give more positive connotations.

The word 'plant' can be associated with nature, health and fresh air, and the Sainsbury's Plant Pioneers range reinforce this, as a green leaf peeks out from the logo.

Despite this, it is argued by companies offering meat-free options that the food on offer is better for the planet, as well as health.

A Quorn spokesperson told the Independent in 2021: “We don’t recognise the label of ‘ultra-processed – our protein is cultivated from a natural nutritious fungus, using the age-old method of fermentation, and then steam-cooked, chilled and frozen to create Quorn products".