Researchers have highlighted the potential pitfalls of shifting towards plant-based diets with novel plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. They found that compared to a diet containing meat and dairy or traditional plant-based foods, novel plant-based diets fall well below requirements for calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12 and exceed recommendations for saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Their findings validate many of my concerns about the plant-based meat and dairy alternatives filling our supermarket shelves. These products are promoted as more sustainable and better for you than unprocessed meat and dairy products and assume the health benefits of minimally processed pulses, legumes and vegetables, typical of traditional plant-based diets. While the commercial drivers are apparent, nutrition and health (ironically critical to sustainability) have been ignored.
A way forward
The authors suggest how the industry could address these limitations in the future:
- Focus on enhancing the nutritional content of plant-based products with adequate vitamins and minerals while avoiding adding sugar, salt and saturated fat.
- Invest in new research to understand the health implications of consuming novel plant-based alternatives and identify opportunities to enhance their health profile.
- Create value from existing nutrient-dense, natural plant sources (legumes, pulses, seeds, nuts, vegetables) rather than fabricate products to mimic dairy and meat products.
- Use validated metrics that assess a food’s nutritional value and environmental impact to understand its role in healthy sustainable diets.
Some thoughts of my own
Is widespread fortification the answer to the world’s health and nutrition problems?
The easy option for many food manufacturers will be to add nutrients to highly formulated products constructed from many nutrient-poor ingredients, with salt, sugar and fat added for taste. Although fortification has its place in correcting nutrient deficiencies, it’s unknown if adding multiple vitamins and minerals to these products will resolve the world’s health and nutrition problems. Emerging research about the value of the food matrix, the synergistic workings of different foods and their components, and the role phytochemicals play in health suggests it could be challenging to replicate the benefits of traditional plant-based diets artificially.
Add value without destroying the nutritional value
The industry must strive to retain the goodness and the health benefits that are inherent to unadulterated plant foods. How can we make these foods convenient, affordable and palatable, without destroying the food’s natural nutritional qualities? What technologies can help us?
Think beyond protein
We must think beyond protein. Nutrition is way more than just protein. The current focus is to extract proteins from plants, fabricate foods from protein isolates and numerous other nutrient-poor components that don’t usually go together. These products tend to need lots of added fat, sugar and salt to make them edible and struggle to hit the mark nutritionally and health-wise.
There is plenty to be gained from the shift towards plant-based diets. We need to be aware of the potential pitfalls, so we don’t solve one problem and create others.
Reference: Tso, R., & Forde, C. G. (2021). Unintended Consequences: Nutritional Impact and Potential Pitfalls of Switching from Animal- to Plant-Based Foods. Nutrients, 13(8), 2527. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/nu13082527