Trend Analysis: Ultra-processed Frankenfood Is Out

Two women are seated outside, eating hamburgers at a restaurant.

Say you’re browsing the grocery store shelves for a healthy dessert option. What might catch your eye? Would an ice cream labeled “plant-based” have you convinced? Or would you flip it over to the nutrition label, and check for a short and sweet ingredient list of items you recognize? Two food labels — "plant-based" and "ultra-processed" — are facing increasing scrutiny from shoppers as consumer preferences shift toward simpler, more sustainable foods. 

Putting the "Plant" Back in "Plant-Based"

You might be familiar with greenwashing or rainbow-washing, but may we introduce you to plant-based washing

The term plant-based was originally coined to label products as vegan meat replacements, like a plant-based hamburger patty. As the term gained marketing power, it came to be associated with any healthy alternative to meat — such as tofu or seitan. The label then grew to include foods that were naturally vegan, like coconut milk. But now, plant-based can be used to describe any product that doesn’t include meat or animal products, including things that aren’t foods at all, like plant-based shampoo and plant-based vapes.

The oversaturation of the label is causing the term to quickly become passé. Instead of leading consumers to believe a product is natural or healthy as originally intended, plant-based has garnered a new, negative reputation. Due to its connections to ultra-processed vegan alternatives, "plant-based" foods have earned a new label: Frankenfood.

@tonichealth Ditch the veggie alternatives this Veganuary. Fake meat is ultra-processed, your better off eating the real thing or if your vegetarian going for chickpeas, lentils etc for your protein. #vegan #veganuary #fakemeat #meat #veggie #veggiesausage #veggieburger ♬ original sound - Tonichealth

                                 A popular health food TikTok account advises viewers
                                      to avoid processed vegan meat alternatives.

In its annual food trends report, Whole Foods predicts this year we’ll see food brands putting the "plant" back in "plant-based." Whole Foods has observed “shrinking labels” at its stores, where the number of ingredients listed on the label is decreasing. Instead of complex meat alternatives, vegan food companies are touting naturally plant-based, whole ingredients like mushrooms, walnuts, tempeh, and legumes.

The Government vs. Ultra-processed Foods

"Ultra-processed" is another label currently under fire from health food communities — and the U.S. government. Every five years, the U.S. Departments of Health and Agriculture release new dietary guidelines, which dictate which foods the government considers healthy (these are the sources of those food pyramids and plate diagrams you probably saw in school). 

In preparation for next year’s report, federal researchers are probing into the health effects of ultra-processed foods — like their potential connection to obesity. Recent studies have linked diets high in ultra-processed foods to several health concerns, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and depression

But major food brands are pushing back on the demonization of processing, arguing it makes food safe, convenient, accessible, and affordable. While there may be benefits worth arguing for, they're also worried about what a pushback against processing could do to their own bottom lines. One food exec said ultra-processed foods account for 90% of their portfolio.

The Shorter the Ingredient List, the Better

While the government — and the internet — debates over food labeling, consumer preferences are already shifting toward simpler, more natural foods. Though health food fans and “crunchy” shoppers have been pushing for shrunken labels for a while, the shift has spread more broadly across the consumer landscape.

And brands are responding. The trendy oat milk producer Oatly and other plant-based milk brands recently faced social media pushback for their long ingredient lists containing suspicious ingredients like seed oils. The company answered with a new product: Oatly Super Basic Oatmilk, which has just four ingredients: water, oats, sea salt, and citrus zest.

Our prediction? The return of dairy milks. The milk industry has been preparing for a comeback with a resurrection of the iconic Got Milk? campaign and even a push in court against the labeling of alternative milks as milk. And if consumers are looking for products with a short ingredient list, well, milk only has one.

 🍎 Sound familiar? The biohacking trend continues as consumers prioritize their health.

From Artificial to Authentic

Food is often an area where larger cultural trends play out, since food is so ingrained in consumers' everyday lives. While technological and scientific advancements may have brought us to a place where a juicy sausage can be replicated using anything-but-meat and machines can churn out thousands of identical-looking cookies, new tides are turning. Now, food trends are veering back in the other direction as we place increasing value on sustainability, simplicity, and authenticity.

It’s not just food brands who should take note: we're seeing a societal shift that calls for a reevaluation of our relationship with the products we consume. 

Wondering what other trends you need to know to stay on the forefront of conversation? Tier One’s Agile Insights team keeps you up-to-date in our monthly trend report.


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