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Plant-based fast food no ‘silver bullet’ for health and environment concerns

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As Australian fast-food giants continue to roll out meat-free menu options, experts warn the perceived environmental and health benefits of plant-based fast food options aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

KFC’s newly released meat-free take on popcorn chicken, dubbed ‘Wicked Popcorn’, is the latest in a series of plant-based menu items launched by fast food chains in recent years.

The limited-time ‘popcorn’, made from pea protein and only available in 14 New South Wales locations, follows similar moves by rivals McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s, who have released plant-based burgers this year and in 2019, respectively.

These menu additions are a clear appeal to the Australians sticking to vegan or vegetarian diets, who made up more than 12 per cent of the country’s population as of 2019, Roy Morgan data shows.

Drivers of plant-based movement

Australia has one of the largest vegan communities in the world, second only to the UK as of 2020.

Consumers are leaning towards plant-based foods after becoming more aware of the health and environmental effects of what they eat, Jason Wu, head of nutrition science at The George Institute of Global Health told The New Daily.

‘‘There are some consumers nowadays who are aware of the fact that in general, if you eat a healthy plant-based diet, it can be better for your health, compared to more animal-based products,’’ he said.

‘‘In addition, there are also consumers who are becoming aware of the fact that eating lower down on the food chain tends to be better for our planet’s health as well … Plant-based foods tend to have much lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to animal-based foods.

‘‘There’s a growing awareness for both personal health and on the climate front, it’s better to eat plant-based foods.’’

Plant-based benefits ‘negligible’

Kate Sievert, from the Deakin University Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition, said the perceived benefits are not always as profound as consumers hope.

Ms Sievert said while fast-food companies are increasingly trying to capitalise on their customers’ desire for meat-free alternatives – that doesn’t mean the plant-based products they come up with are a healthier or environmentally-sustainable alternative.

‘‘If we’re looking at this as a silver bullet solution, I don’t think it’s our way forward,’’ she said.

The ultra-processed nature of fast food – even vegan and vegetarian options – can often cancel out any health or environmental benefits they might otherwise have had.

‘‘From an overall health perspective, it’s probably a negligible difference,’’ Ms Sievert said of the latest KFC offering.

‘‘They’re essentially an ultra-processed product. They’re being offered, covered in batter, and in the context of other ultra-processed and fried foods.’’

Altering food’s nutrients, and adding ingredients such as emulsifiers, sugar and salt compromises food quality, and can potentially destroy any nutritional benefits.

KFC’s latest menu item is unrecognisable from its pea origins.

Ms Sievert said the environmental impacts of manufacturing and distributing ultra-processed foods, including plant-based meat alternatives, has a “sizeable” environmental impact.

‘‘They’re definitely not as green as they say that they are,’’ she said.

She referenced a study published in July, which found ultra-processed foods and similar food products significantly contributed to land use, degradation and biodiversity loss.

The study found ultra-processed foods are fundamentally unsustainable products associated with poor health, social and environmental outcomes, and while animal-based products are key drivers of issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, plant-based products drove up phosphorus use and energy inputs.

Don’t buy into marketing

Ms Sievert said the fact that plant-based products are likely prepared with the same tools used for meat items (as is the case with KFC’s Wicked Chicken, which is cooked in the same oil and fryers as Popcorn Chicken) also means they don’t align with vegetarian or vegan desires to avoid consuming animal products.

Dr Wu said if you’re looking to eat more healthily for yourself or the environment, don’t buy into marketing that indicates that plant-based foods are universally healthy options.

‘‘Very refined, deep-fried potato chips are obviously not going to have the same health benefits as a nice fresh salad that’s put together with some beautiful extra virgin olive oil,’’ he said.

‘‘It does make me concerned that, what they’re serving in this plant-based menu isn’t, for example, something that you can recognise as something you would throw together in your own home kitchen as a salad, like a bunch of peas and lettuce and tomatoes.

‘‘It’s something that is essentially unrecognisable from how nature has produced it.’’

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