Dan Murphy: The ‘Ultra-Processed’ Problem

KFC's plant-based nuggets. ( KFC )

New research is questioning the healthfulness of consuming large amounts of highly processed food ingredients, with one European study’s data indicate a worrying trend of earlier mortality.

Alt-meat introductions at fast-food chains, no matter how limited the rollout, continue to cause media members to salivate like reporters at one of those free food buffets corporations provide at trade shows to ensure favorable coverage of their latest business innovation.

Now KFC is getting into the act, partnering with Beyond Meat to test market its plant-based “fried chicken.” The new item so far is offered exclusively at a single Atlanta-area store, and “customer response” will determine if the item is added to KFC menus nationwide.

According to a spokesperson, the new item’s taste is “indistinguishable” from real chicken.

“KFC Beyond Fried Chicken is so delicious, our customers will find it difficult to tell that it's plant-based," boasted Kevin Hochman, KFC U.S. president and chief concept officer, in a statement. “I think we’ve all heard ‘It tastes like chicken.’ Well, our customers are going to be amazed and say, ‘It tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken!’ ”

No offense to the firm’s chief concept officer, but by the time any of the chain’s signature products are rolled in batter/breading and spices and then deep-fried, it could be cardboard from the packaging inside all that extra crispy coating and it’d still “taste like Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Customer acceptance aside, there’s no doubt that both the selection and the market penetration of plant-based alt-meat analogs will continue to expand both at foodservice and in supermarkets near term.

But whether or not consumers are fooled into thinking I can’t believe this isn’t chicken (or burgers or sausage), the question remains: Are all those factory foods really healthier than the real deal?

A major study’s conclusions

The question is pertinent, if only because the plant-based novelty with which alt-meat manufacturers are positioning their products has so far obscured a more rigorous examination of the health impact of consuming concoctions that don’t exist in Nature.

In fact, new research is beginning to raise caution flags concerning the prevalence of so-called “ultra-processed foods,” namely, products that aren’t derived from minimally processed plant or animal sources.

A recent research paper published on thebmj.com (like KFC, aka Kentucky Fried Chicken, bmj stands for British Medical Journal) titled, “Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all-cause mortality,” suggested that eating more than four servings a day of ultra-processed food was “independently associated” with a 62% increased hazard of death.

Of course, the crucial question is this: What’s an “ultra-processed food?”

While I acknowledge the validity of the thesis proposed by the bmj.com researchers, who are connected with various universities and research centers in Spain, as well as the Harvard University TH Chan School of Public Health, I question their definitions of what constitutes ultra-processing.

In the study, which included nearly 20,000 participants reporting their food and beverage intake (such data being notoriously unreliable, it must be stipulated), the categories were characterized as follows:

  • Minimally processed food. Produce, legumes, milk, eggs, meats, poultry, fish and seafood, yogurt, grains (white rice, pasta), fruit juice, coffee and water.
  • Processed ingredients. Salt, sugar, honey, vegetable oils, butter and lard.
  • Processed foods. Condensed milk, cream, cheese, cured ham, bacon, canned fruit, bread, beer and wine.
  • Ultra-processed food. Custard, pudding, margarine, ice cream, processed meat, pate, foie gras, meatballs, potato chips, breakfast cereals, pizza, cookies, cake, muffins, pie, donuts, chocolate, candy, carbonated drinks, artificially sweetened beverages, fruit juice, milkshakes, instant soup, mayonnaise and alcoholic beverages, such as whiskey, gin and rum.

Truthfully, that list is far from intuitive. For example: Maybe they make meatballs out of some really exotic ingredients in Spanish cuisine, but why would meat be considered “minimally processed,” while meatballs are in the “ultra-processed” category?

Doesn’t make sense.

What does make some sense, though, is the concern that as highly processed formulated foods, such as those in the alt-meat category, replace conventional meat, poultry and dairy, there might be legitimate reasons to worry about the long-term health effects of consuming ingredients manufactured into food products never before part of human nutrition.

We know that over-consumption of highly processed, highly sweetened foods, such as donuts, candy and soda, is likely to shorten one’s lifespan, even as they pack on the pounds we don’t need.

I’m unconvinced that milkshakes and meatballs would have the same effect, but it does make sense that if and when alt-meat analogs become standard fare for millions of consumers convinced that such ultra-processed products are “better for you,” there could be cause for concern.

Time will tell.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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