When Plant Foods are Ultra-Processed, the Health Benefits Disappear

by Ella

Eating a plant-based diet is beneficial for your health, but the advantages are significantly diminished if those plant foods are ultra-processed. A recent study, published in Lancet Regional Health-Europe, reveals that consuming ultra-processed plant-derived foods like meat substitutes, fruit juices, and pastries increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Conversely, minimally processed plant foods—such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts—offer protective effects against cardiovascular diseases.

The Difference Between Plant-Based Diets

The study underscores that not all plant-based diets are equal. The health impact of plant foods varies dramatically based on how they are processed before consumption. Ultra-processed foods, even if derived from plants, lose their health benefits and can even be detrimental to long-term health. This finding challenges the notion that all plant-based foods are inherently healthy.


Study Highlights the Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods

The research utilized data from the UK Biobank, tracking 118,000 adults over roughly a decade. Participants provided comprehensive information about their diets, lifestyles, and health outcomes. Key findings from the study include:


Increased Mortality Risk: Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a greater likelihood of dying from heart disease.


Cardiovascular Disease: A 10% increase in calories from ultra-processed plant foods correlated with a 5% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 6% higher risk of coronary heart disease.


Benefits of Minimally Processed Foods: Increasing the consumption of whole, minimally processed plant foods by 10% was associated with an 8% reduction in coronary heart disease risk and a 20% lower risk of dying from it. Additionally, there was a 13% lower risk of dying from any cardiovascular disease.

The Nature of Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed plant foods include items such as:

Wheat and Corn Products: Pastries, buns, biscuits, cakes, packaged breads, cereals, chips, and salty snacks.

Potatoes: French fries and potato chips.

Sugars: Candy and soft drinks.

Fruits and Vegetables: Processed into sauces, dressings, juices, beverages, and frozen pizza.

Soy, Wheat, Beans, and Peas: Used in meat substitutes like imitation burgers and sausages.

How Ultra-Processing Alters Foods

Ultra-processing involves stripping foods of health-promoting nutrients and adding salt, sugar, and fat. This process destroys the food’s natural structure or “food matrix,” leading to rapid absorption by the body, less satiety, and potentially higher blood sugar levels. Extreme pressures and temperatures during industrial processing can also create harmful compounds, such as acrolein and acrylamide, which promote cardiovascular disease.

The Advantages of Minimally Processed Plant Foods

In contrast, minimally processed plant foods retain fiber, polyphenols, phytosterols, and other compounds that reduce inflammation and support overall health. These foods are typically cleaned, cut, and packaged but remain close to their natural state.

Recommendations for a Healthier Diet

Fernanda Rauber, the study’s lead author, recommends focusing on a diet rich in minimally processed foods and avoiding items with long ingredient lists filled with additives, colorants, sweeteners, and flavor enhancers. She advises reading ingredient labels carefully to ensure foods are made from real ingredients you would use at home.

Previous Research and Policy Implications

The findings are consistent with previous research linking ultra-processed foods to early death and various health issues, including weight gain, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. A 2022 study involving 78,000 health-conscious Seventh-day Adventists found a 14% higher mortality rate among those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods compared to those who consumed the least.

The growing body of evidence has led to calls for changes in dietary guidelines. A panel that influences the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans is considering whether to include warnings against ultra-processed foods in the next edition.


The study highlights a critical distinction: while plant-based diets are generally healthier, the level of food processing plays a crucial role in determining their health benefits. Ultra-processed plant foods can negate the positive effects of a plant-based diet, underscoring the importance of choosing minimally processed options. By adopting a diet rich in whole, minimally processed plant foods, individuals can improve their health outcomes and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.



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