Professor Jennie Macdiarmid, from the University of Aberdeen, raised concern that plant-based diets were becoming less healthy and less environmentally sustainable in an article in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.1 The author premised this concern on the trend towards eating more highly processed, plant-based convenience foods. This article is just one of many recently published articles that have raised various concerns about plant-based milks2,3 and plant-based meats.4,5
Macdiarmid cites research acknowledging that there are several barriers to adopting plant-based diets including inconvenience, time and skills needed to prepare plant-based meals; difficulty of obtaining dietary information; and the fact that raw ingredients tend to be expensive.6 Macdiarmid notes that novel meat alternatives that look and taste like conventional meat could satisfy the pleasure people experience from eating meat. However, her concern is that the meat alternatives and other plant-based convenience foods are ultra-processed foods (UPFs).
There is little doubt that the bulk of the observational evidence shows links between UPF intake and an array of adverse health outcomes.7 However, a broad range of foods are included in the UPF category, as defined by the NOVA food classification system. A soymilk made from whole soybeans and fortified with calcium and vitamin D can be classified as a UPF because it contains gellan gum, a gelling agent.
The nutritional attributes of soymilk or soy-based meat alternatives, which are also classified as UPFs, differ markedly from a typical candy bar. However, all three types of foods fall in the same NOVA category. The differences are illustrated when evaluating foods based using the Food Compass Score (FCS) which scores foods on a scale of 1 to 100, as a Snickers bar has a score of 19 whereas the 4 soymilks evaluated have scores ranging from 68 to 79. The FCS is not without its own limitations,8 but it certainly considers many more characteristics than NOVA does in the classification of food.
Certainly, an argument can be made on nutritional grounds that it is preferable for vegetarians to consume cooked beans rather than a soy burger. However, according to a survey by Faunalytics 84% of vegetarians/vegans abandon their diet, 34% of lapsed vegetarians/vegans maintained the diet for three months or less, and 53% adhered to the diet for less than one year.9
There are many reasons for this high degree of recidivism. But according to Faunalytics, three of these are 1) craving/being tempted by meat, 2) being bored with food options, and 3) difficulty of being “pure” with a vegetarian/vegan diet.9 A vast array of plant milks and plant-based meats can help to address each of these reasons and thus, may make it more likely for vegetarian/vegan adherents to maintain their dietary pattern.
Although vegetarian and vegan consumers may accept plant-based alternatives that lack meat-like sensory properties, omnivorous and flexitarian consumers prefer alternatives that as much as possible resemble meat.10-13 Thus, the availability of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives may help vegetarians maintain their dietary pattern and omnivores incorporate more plant protein into their diet.
- Macdiarmid JI. The food system and climate change: are plant-based diets becoming unhealthy and less environmentally sustainable? Proc Nutr Soc 2021:1-6.
- Clegg ME, Tarrado Ribes A, Reynolds R, Kliem K, Stergiadis S. A comparative assessment of the nutritional composition of dairy and plant-based dairy alternatives available for sale in the UK and the implications for consumers’ dietary intakes. Food Res Int 2021;148:110586.
- Scholz-Ahrens KE, Ahrens F, Barth CA. Nutritional and health attributes of milk and milk imitations. Eur J Nutr 2020;59:19-34.
- Wickramasinghe K, Breda J, Berdzuli N, Rippin H, Farrand C, Halloran A. The shift to plant-based diets: are we missing the point? Global Food Security 2021;29:100530.
- Alessandrini R, Brown MK, Pombo-Rodrigues S, Bhageerutty S, He FJ, MacGregor GA. Nutritional quality of plant-based meat products available in the UK: A cross-sectional survey. Nutrients 2021;13.
- Schosler H, de Boer J, Boersema JJ. Can we cut out the meat of the dish? Constructing consumer-oriented pathways towards meat substitution. Appetite 2012;58:39-47.
- Lane MM, Davis JA, Beattie S, Gomez-Donoso C, Loughman A, O’Neil A, Jacka F, Berk M, Page R, Marx W, et al. Ultraprocessed food and chronic noncommunicable diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 43 observational studies. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 2021;22:e13146.
- Ortenzi F, Kolby M, Lawrence M, Leroy F, Nordhagen S, Phillips S, Beal T. Limitations of the Food Compass nutrient profiling system. SocArXiv, 18 Feb 2022 Web 2022.
- A summary of Faunalytics’ study of current and former vegetarians and vegans. In; 2016.
- Michel F, Hartman C, Siegrist M. Consumers’ associations, perceptions and acceptance of meat and plant-based meat alternatives. Food Quality Preference 2021;87:104063.
- Reipurth MFS, Hørby L, Gregersen CG, Bonke A, Perez Cueto FJA. Barriers and facilitators towards adopting a more plant-based diet in a sample of Danish consumers. Food Qual Prefer 2019;73:288–92.
- Curtain F, Grafenauer S. Plant-based meat substitutes in the flexitarian age: An audit of products on supermarket shelves. Nutrients 2019;11.
- van Vliet S, Kronberg SL, Provenza FD. Plant-based meats, human health, and climate change. Frontiers Sustainable Food Systems 2020;4.
This blog is sponsored by SNI Global and the United Soybean Board.