Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are a health risk, according to two reports published in recent days.

A report in The Lancet Regional Health Europe says that while eating a plant-based diet is good for health, that doesn’t apply when plant products are ultra processed.

Foremost among ultra-processed plant-based foods are meat substitute products, they were found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The study is based on the analysis of 118,000 people in the UK over 11 years with participants providing information on their diet and lifestyle habits.

The findings were that the more ultra processed food people consumed the greater the health risk. For every 10% increase in calorie consumption from UPF, there was a 5% increase in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 6% higher risk of developing heart disease specifically.

Cakes and cereals

The trend was reversed with the consumption of whole foods with an 8% reduction in the risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The main products identified were cakes and cereals derived from wheat, chips from potatoes, confectionery and soft drinks, pizza and meat substitutes derived from soy, wheat, beans and peas.

The World Health Organisation also published a report this week that included UPFs as one of the causes for death for 7,400 people every day across the 53 countries of Europe. In this report, UPFs were just one of the causes, with tobacco, fossil fuels and alcohol also major causes.

Whole foods

The product leaving farms whether dairy, meat or vegetables are all natural whole foods. Many of these of course can be used as core ingredients in processed foods but vast quantities of Irish meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables are used in their natural state. Ice cream may be processed but butter, cheese and liquid milk are all natural products. It is the same with a beef steak and lamb or pork chops while sausages and bacon are processed.

Eggs are a natural product though when they are used to make cakes, they cease to be natural and become one of the ingredients in a processed product.


Meat has long been recognised as part of a healthy diet alongside fruit and vegetables. However, when vegetables become the base for an ultra-processed product that seeks to be a substitute for meat, then the health status is lost.

An industry has been developed over the past decade around the manufacture of these products but consumers haven’t been convinced.

The result is that the vast majority of these manufacturers are loss-making businesses and many core meat processors that had diversified into this space, have either reduced their investment or even withdrawn in some cases. It may be some time before a healthy commercially viable substitute for natural beef, lamb, pork, poultry and dairy is developed.

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