Consumer interest in the environment, animal welfare and health has created a demand for alternatives to animal-based products.
While food producers work hard to develop products that are similar in taste and texture to their animal counterparts, many new plant-based alternatives are nutritionally inferior.
Many of these new foods don’t resemble anything like the food they started as, and the end product risks being less healthy than the product they are supposed to be replacing.
As product marketers, how can we produce more nutritious plant-based products?
Plant versus animal products
The observational studies done to date, concluding that eating a diet with a high proportion of plants is good for your health and associated with lower cases of disease, has brought about an assumption that all plant-based diets are healthier.
However, there is a scientific shortfall of information, not only because these studies only show an association, and not a direct cause and effect, but also because it’s assumed that the plant-based diet in question is made up of mainly unprocessed plants. That is plants that are close to their natural form and minimally processed.
What happens when plants are processed to seem like something else?
The issue is, that when we start tinkering with a plant product – like stripping out the fibre and complex carbohydrates to gain protein, then adding salt, sugar and saturated fat to make it taste better – we’re likely to end up with a product that isn’t much better nutritionally, than junk food.
How do dairy “milk” replacements stack up?
Let’s use “milk” alternatives as an example. Dairy milk, i.e. milk that comes from cows is a source of high-quality protein, essential minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, zinc and iodine, and vitamins A, B and D.
The plant-based alternatives for dairy milk include nut options, such as almond and cashew, as well as coconut, soy, rice and oat. None of these naturally contain the same nutrients or the same amount of nutrients as dairy milk, so they are not nutritionally equivalent (Tables 1, 2 and 3). To improve their nutritional contents, plant-based ‘milk’ need to have vitamins (Table 2) and minerals (Table 3) added. As you’ll see in Table 2, our soy milk example is the only “milk” alternative with appreciable amounts of vitamins. This is because vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and vitamin D have all been added.
Protein levels in plant-based alternatives
The level and quality of protein in plant-based beverages are often much lower than animal milk, with the poorer quality being due to plant proteins not having the same profile or concentrations of essential amino acids as animal milk.
The nutritional differences between the various “milk” are also similar in plant-based cheese (Tables 4 and 5) and meat alternatives (not shown). Both substitutes are often enhanced for flavour with sodium. And while some meat alternatives do have similar nutritional profiles, what we can’t show in a graph, or in the nutritional panel of a label, is how the body uses certain nutrients – namely protein, iron and zinc – these nutrients can be harder to obtain from plant-based proteins than animal proteins.
What can food companies do to produce more nutritionally equivalent plant-based products?
If food manufacturers are looking to offer a plant-based alternative to a core food, they should be considering nutritional equivalence. Rather than focusing on consumer perception and trying to “replace” a product with one that looks like another, let’s start thinking about the impacts these replacement products are going to have on consumer nutrition and health. This is also an opportunity to educate the consumer and position yourself as an expert in plant-based nutrition.
Think about the nutritional value of the food your product is replacing
When you start looking at what your product lacks nutritionally and understand it’s limitations, you can start to think about how you might be able to enhance its nutritional contribution. Fortifying with vitamins, minerals and fibre or using spices to add flavour (as opposed to sugar, salt and saturated fat) will boost nutrition to some extent.
Educate your consumer as to how your product fits with the rest of their diet
Provide advice as to how your consumer can supplement their diet with other complementary foods. Or even better, create complementary products to provide a complete meal for your consumer. Legumes and cereals go well together to enhance protein profiles. Ensure that your serving sizes are also consistent with dietary recommendations – do they need to eat a larger portion in order to gain more nutrients? Adding imagery is another great way to show how your product could be consumed.
Minimise the processing
Better still, develop products that use less processed plant foods so that their inherent nutritional qualities are retained. Being low in saturated fat and a valuable source of complex carbohydrates, soluble and insoluble fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, are what will make plant-based diets healthier.
Tables supporting this article
Table 1: Protein and saturated fat content in two serves of “milk”
Table 2: Vitamin content in two serves of “milk”
Table 3: Mineral content in two serves of “milk”
Table 4: Fat, protein and sodium content of “cheese”
Table 5: Vitamin and mineral content of “cheese”