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Sunday 20th October 2019

How vegan evangelists are propping up the ultra-processed food industry

Ultra-processing hands food manufacturers a licence to print money.

Take potatoes.

There’s only so much you could charge for them in their natural form, even if you were to market them as exclusive heirloom varieties, hand polished in mineral water by virgins.

But transform them into crisps, or microwaveable chips, and the sky’s the limit.

It’s what food engineers refer to as “adding value”: the more you can break down whole foods into biddable component parts, which you then endlessly manipulate to produce a series of more lucrative configurations, the more the Stock Market loves you.

“Value engineering” (keeping down ingredient costs) is the food manufacturer’s overweening objective. You do it by replacing the costlier items, eggs, butter, meat, milk, for instance, with pre-processed industrial substitutes, artfully employed, using all the tricks in the food technologist’s manual, to create a similar effect.

Why, for example, use real eggs in your formulation when you can choose instead cleverly confected starches, which, along with synthetic egg flavouring and yellow colouring, will give your product an egg-like effect?

Ultra-processing is a tried-and-tested formula for skinflint spending and profit generation. But now that over half the food we eat in the UK falls into this category.

This strong financial incentive to reduce raw material costs is the reason why ultra-processed products as seemingly dissimilar as fish fingers, mayonnaise and chocolate mousse frequently share so many common ingredients: added water, protein flours, industrially refined oil, gums, chemically-altered starches, and sugar, in multiple, often less than candidly expressed, forms.

All the above are tarted-up with man-made food additives – preservatives, emulsifiers, flavourings, colourings – and further confected with unlabelled “processing aids”, such as enzymes.

Ultra-processing is a tried-and-tested formula for skinflint spending and profit generation. But now that over half the food we eat in the UK falls into this category, manufacturers find themselves in the dock, judged guilty of making the population fat and sick with their creations.

Then, just in the nick of time, along comes the vegan-driven, “plant food” army, handing them a “Get out of jail free” card, a chance to recast their industry as saviour of the nation’s health. And while they’re at it, why not also go for gold and reinvent health-wrecking junk under a new green banner, as rescuing the planet?

It’s an excuse to slash their ingredients costs even further by replacing everything real, pricy and of animal origin with everything that is fake, cheap and from a plant.

Plant-food evangelism – at its most righteous and vituperative recently with the grandiose launch of the EAT-Lancet diet, which advocates that every soul on the planet should transition to a plant-based diet – is music to the ears of Big Food.

However cheap, low grade and factory farmed the animal foods in its omnivore products, they still cost considerably more than the plant equivalents: corn, wheat, soya.

No wonder many controversial junk food manufacturers, chemical and biotech companies, additives corporations, and commodity food processors are so supportive of EAT-Lancet.

They must scarcely be able to believe their luck. They’ve been handed a massive rebranding opportunity free of charge, courtesy of the vegan desire for plant-based junk pretending to be dairy, meat, fish, and eggs.

An excuse to slash their ingredients costs even further by replacing everything real, pricy, and of animal origin with everything that is fake, cheap and from a plant, has just fallen into their laps. Seriously, they must be laughing all the way to the bank.

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Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain. A great believer in basing your diet on whole, unprocessed food that you cook yourself, Joanna is a passionate supporter of independent shops, markets and similar non-supermarket outlets. Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018.

17 Comments
  1. This is precisely the argument I have been leaving on a vegan food site. No one will come back to me to confirm that the plant based food they are selling is gmo and pesticide free. The irony is that they are promoting the destruction of vast numbers of insects and hose species that feed on them. How can that be sustainable?? Profit and greed

    1. I totally understand your concern.

      Crops grown to feed livestock (91% of livestock is factory farmed) also kill insects, and sometimes other species. When you go vegan you are reducing the amount of insects killed, because it takes around ten times more crops to feed livestock than directly consume plant calories ourselves.

      (PS: GMOs vs. non-GMOs have no significant difference in health effects.
      PPS: Pesticides are also used with crops for livestock, especially factory farmed.)

      I hope this helped ! 💕

  2. Most vegans I know,including myself, are extremely health conscious and prefer to create their own dishes. Also, there is nothing cheap or processed about your image here: simple, unadulterated tofu.I have lived very cheaply for 50 years on a largely plant-based diet. Am now fully vegan (but not a vegangelical!) Those who were happy to eat processed rubbish before going vegan will no doubt make less conscious choices on what they eat, and those in the business of cashing in will always do just that. It’s, as always, a matter of educating people.

    1. The problem with pieces like this, is that they’re ill informed emotive BS. It’s much easier to hate on Vegans than it is to look at your own dietary choices, isn’t it?

  3. This is one of your best recently after the #EATlancet release.
    Clearly they are inspiring you.

    The group didn’t realize how much they would fire us up and this is working beautifully to produce arguments against

  4. This is so wonderful! I can’t wait to eat the occasional vegan junk food without cholesterol, saturated, hormones, etc! 😀 #plantsarerealtoo

  5. Oh that is a good read, cuts through all the bull (pun intended) and gets to the grass roots (another pun) of the ridiculous eating fads pushed forward.
    There’d be more nutrition in cardboard box that these products come in!
    Well done with this article.
    Well done.

  6. amen – the vociferous “bourgeois eating disorder’ know as veganism is accelerating the demise of our ecosystem AND health – their two claims of benefit that simply do not hold up to even the vaguest scrutiny. All I would add is that the vegan evangilista are most assuredly being spawned in the PR departments of both big “Farma” AND big “Pharma”.

  7. One can be a healthy vegan eating NO processed food at all, but all those, mainly young people, raised in households where both parents worked outside the home will not have experienced home cooking from raw materials. But then processed food production and vast profits have increased as mothers flocked to earn money outside the home, and governments have encouraged that to get those taxes in!

  8. “However cheap, low grade and factory farmed the animal foods in its omnivore products, they still cost considerably more than the plant equivalents: corn, wheat, soya.”
    Factory-farmed animals are fed corn and soya, so I’m guessing the reason plant-based junk food is cheaper to produce is that there is no ‘middle-man’so to speak.

    I agree these companies are taking advantage of the rise in demand for vegan food, but aren’t they just continuing to exploit people’s desire for convenient, cheap, junk food? Vegans who care about their health, as well as animals, will be eating a whole food plant-based diet.

    If vegan demand is hitting factory farming and cheap meat, that’s a good thing. Now we need to tackle the problem of junk food and educate people on the benefits and value of real food that’s ethically and sustainably produced, plants or animals.

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