Plant-Based Drinks: Ultra-Processed Products?

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Plant-based drinks: products ultra-transformed?

Whether for ecological reasons or for health reasons, milk from animal sources is increasingly being replaced by plant-based drinks. But are these drinks overly processed and sugary? The grocery store looked into the matter.

Sales of plant-based drinks have increased by 33% annually for the past five years.

“Vegetable drinks should not be the center or the base of our diet. It's handy for replacing milk and dairy products in our diet,” says nutritionist Anne-Marie Roy. These drinks are popular for their convenience, but are they healthy?

A study of nearly 650 plant-based drinks was conducted by Adam Drewnowski, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. On the one hand, they are drinks with a certain nutritional interest. And on the other side, it is sure that these are ultra-processed drinks by the industry. So what to do? he wonders.

The Brazilian NOVA system, recognized internationally and used by public health authorities, evaluates foods according to their degree of processing. Vegetable drinks have been classified by this system as ultra-processed products, and therefore in the same category as fries, hamburgers or sweets.

The Brazilian NOVA system rates foods according to their degree of processing. According to this classification, plant-based drinks are ultra-processed products.

Vegetable drinks generally contain very long lists of ingredients. These drinks can for example contain isolates from protein concentrates to improve their protein level, but also sugar, fats, gums, vitamins, preservatives and flavor enhancers.

Nutritionist Anne-Marie Roy puts a damper on the NOVA approach, since the latter classifies in the category of ultra-processed all products containing additives. But we do not make the difference between additives which are harmless and additives which are dangerous. If we had put polysorbate 60 in vegetable drinks, I would have said watch out. […] But we add, for example, soy lecithin or sunflower lecithin, which is an additive that is not classified as dangerous.

For Michel Lucas, doctor in nutritional epidemiology at Laval University, if plant-based drinks currently benefit from the aura of science on plant products, these products remain ultra-processed and sweet. He also believes that we ask a lot of a simple liquid.

We tend to put everything in liquid form because it goes faster. Maybe we should eat the original form, like legumes or nuts, he says.

Are these plant drinks overly processed and sugary?

Michel Lucas even goes to wonder why so many people want a drink that, to imitate milk, must be so processed. The vegetable diet is not the solution for this researcher.

“It's not the healthiest eating pattern. The Mediterranean diet or the Japanese diet have shown very well that veganism is not the superior diet on a planetary level. There are plenty of other dietary patterns. »

— Michel Lucas, Doctor of Nutritional Epidemiology, Laval University

Sales of plant-based drinks have increased annually by 33% for the past five years. It's a fad, adds the epidemiologist. It's the aura of plant products that makes people turn to it. There is an offer and sometimes these products are cheaper. The problem is that people don't really taste this product because a lot of sugar is added to it.

We have to be realistic. We must offer an alternative to people who want to eliminate dairy products. If you take a good quality vegetable drink, I think it's a food that is really part of a healthy diet, explains nutritionist Anne-Marie Roy.

Our experts still agree that there are more interesting products than others on the market.

If you take a drink, for example soy, which is a legume, it is still very complete. As food, there are a lot of proteins, nutrients, vitamins, minerals. Of course, we have added certain things in terms of the amount of calcium to be equivalent to cow's milk, explains Anne-Marie Roy.

According to nutritionist Anne-Marie Roy, soy drinks can be interesting alternatives.

Some drinks that attempt to mimic the texture and taste of milk, and have water and oil as the first ingredients, are less appealing, according to the nutritionist.

The first two ingredients of the vegetable drink Not Milk are water and sunflower oil.

Unsurprisingly, the vanilla, strawberry or chocolate flavored drinks are also sweeter than the original drinks.

My first choice would be a soy drink which is enriched and which is as much as possible sugar-free and which is produced as locally as possible, explains nutritionist Anne-Marie Roy.

Otherwise, one way to avoid additives is to make these drinks yourself at home, based on hemp or almonds. Several recipes are available on the web.

A vegetable product […], if you don't have emulsifiers, if you don't have not too much sugar, it is a good alternative to dairy products for people who do not want it or who simply cannot drink it, concludes epidemiologist Michel Lucas.

Johane Despins and Caroline Gagnon's report on vegetable milks is broadcast on the show L'épicerie Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. on ICI TÉLÉ.

With information from Annette Gonthier and Johane Despins

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