LONDON, March 6 ― Although aware of the harmful effects of eating ultra-processed foods on their health, Europeans don't view all such products in the same light. While they may be willing to throw caution to the wind to enjoy a packet of potato chips, they seem more reluctant when it comes to meat alternatives like pea or soy-based patties.

From dates in a vegan spread to seaweed and salmon in place of meat in Chinese dumplings, or jackfruit used to prepare an imitation of a meaty country pâté, the latest SIAL international food fair in Paris saw a whole host of new plant-based formulas, all with the same objective: to improve the taste of these meat alternatives. Many of these new foods also tried to win over consumers by promising fewer additives, colourings and other chemical ingredients. For plant-based substitutes to truly find their place on European plates, brands may need to focus more on this second field. In fact, 36 per cent of consumers in Europe identify vegan chicken pieces as ultra-processed foods, while 34 per cent consider the same of vegan cheese slices, reveals the latest report from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory.

Europeans eat potato chips, ready-made sauces and confectionery, so why shouldn't they eat these plant-based alternatives? That's the paradox revealed by this major survey of over 10,000 consumers in 17 European countries. While 55 per cent of them eat ultra-processed foods at least once a week, the same proportion (54 per cent) admit to avoiding meat substitutes, not because of their taste, but because they classify them as ultra-processed products. This is all the more striking since the overall figure includes 53 per cent of consumers with no dietary restrictions (religious, medical or other).

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Europeans are well aware of the harmful consequences of consuming ultra-processed foods on their health: for 65 per cent, they are perceived as unhealthy, and for 67 per cent, they contribute to obesity, diabetes and other medical problems. In fact, their composition made the headlines a few weeks ago with the publication of a meta-analysis published last week. Based on 45 analyses covering 9.8 million participants, this research revealed possible links between the intake of ultra-processed foods and 32 adverse health effects including cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes. Meanwhile another study of 92,000 French residents found a link between certain emulsifying food additives and an increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer, notably breast cancer and prostate cancer.

However, 15 per cent of Dutch consumers eat ultra-processed foods every day, as do 12 per cent of Irish and British consumers, 9 per cent of German consumers and 7 per cent of French consumers. In other words, the Europeans concerned are prepared to bend the rules when it comes to eating potato chips, but appear to be somewhat more discerning when it comes to meat alternatives. To understand this choice, it could be worth taking a closer look at the composition of the former: their recipe is, in fact, designed to send pleasure signals to the brain, through lactic and citric acids in particular, which make the mouth water. ― ETX Studio

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