In a recent study published in International food researchresearchers explore nutrient profiles of next-generation plant-based foods.
Study: Designing healthier plant-based foods: fortification, digestion and bioavailability. Image Credit: marilyn bum/Shutterstock.com
Is a plant-based diet better?
Consumers are increasingly adopting plant-based diets due to concerns about the environmental, health and ethical effects of animal-based foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Foods of animal origin have a negative impact on the environment due to their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, deforestation, pollution and biodiversity loss.
While many believe that a plant-based diet is superior to one that includes animal products, this isn’t always true. Consuming fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains has been associated with better health outcomes; however, it’s unclear whether new plant-based foods, such as alternatives to meat, fish, eggs and dairy, are healthier than the products they aim to replace.
Comparison of nutritional profiles of foods of animal and plant origin
The researchers in the current study compared the nutritional content of a typical chicken nugget with two plant-based alternatives. The plant-based chicken nugget analogues were lower in fat, calories and saturated fat, and higher in dietary fiber than real chicken nuggets.
The carbohydrate, protein and sodium levels of the plant-based and real chicken nuggets were comparable. Overall, plant-based chicken nuggets may offer health benefits over real chicken nuggets due to their lower fat, calorie, and saturated fat content.
Like meat, fish is a good source of high quality protein that is easily digested and contains all the essential amino acids. However, king and vegetable salmon products differ significantly in their macronutrient and micronutrient profiles. For example, the nutritional value of plant-based salmon is not as desirable as real salmon due to its lower protein content and higher levels of sodium and calories.
However, plant-based salmon has higher amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, and iron, all of which potentially provide health benefits for humans. In particular, plant-based salmon products may not be suitable for people who need high levels of protein in their diet.
Eggs are a popular food choice around the world due to their high protein and nutrient content. Plant-based eggs have similar macronutrient profiles to real eggs, with comparable lipid and protein contents.
However, these products contain a slightly higher calorie and carbohydrate content. In addition, the micronutrient content of natural and plant-based eggs differs significantly. For example, plant-based products have higher zinc and iron content than real eggs, which is beneficial to health. However, these alternative egg products also have a higher sodium composition, which could have negative effects on hypertensive patients.
Milk and derivatives
Commercial plant-based dairy products have variable compositions that depend on their formulation. Plant milks are made through a top-down method, which involves grinding plant materials such as oats, nuts, or soybeans, or a bottom-up method, which involves homogenizing emulsifiers, oils vegetables and water.
Top-down methods of making plant-based milk, such as oat, almond or soy milk, generally contain fewer calories than cow’s milk. Although these dairy products do not contain all the micronutrients found in cow’s milk, they are often enriched with nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Additionally, the bottom-up technique can be used to create plant-based lattes that closely resemble the composition of natural milk.
Plant-based cheeses lack protein compared to natural cheeses, which consist of 14% to 30% protein. Plant-based cheeses are also higher in carbohydrates, mostly in the form of starch, which is used to create a cheese-like texture. Additionally, plant-based cheeses have higher levels of sodium than real cheese, which can pose a health risk for people with high blood pressure.
Health effects of a plant-based diet
According to epidemiological research, vegans and vegetarians have lower rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer and arthritis than meat eaters.
Despite the potential health benefits of a more plant-based diet, a vegan or all-vegetarian diet can have significant drawbacks, especially for young children, pregnant women, and older people. Essential amino acids, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc, calcium and iron may be deficient in plant-based diets, as they are predominantly found in foods of animal origin, such as meat, fish , eggs, and dairy products.
According to several nutritional studies, children raised on a purely vegan diet tend to be shorter and leaner than those raised on a standard omnivorous diet, and severe malnutrition can occasionally develop. Therefore, a well-balanced plant-based diet with supplements can help prevent these adverse nutritional and health effects.
Consumers are increasingly adopting plant-based diets due to environmental and health-related concerns. As a result, the food industry needs to develop plant-based foods that contain essential macro and micro nutrients to address potential deficiencies in vegan or vegetarian diets. However, plant-based foods can be enriched with health-promoting ingredients such as dietary fiber and nutraceuticals, which are not commonly found in animal products.
More research is needed to understand the digestive process of plant-based foods and their effects on human health and nutrition.
- McClements, IF and McClements, DJ (2023). Designing healthier plant-based foods: fortification, digestion and bioavailability. International food research 169. doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2023.112853
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