HEALTH CARE

Unpacking the nutrient profiles of new-age plant-based foods: Are they truly healthier?

In a recent study published in Food Research International, researchers explore the nutrient profiles of next-generation plant-based foods.

Study: Designing healthier plant-based foods: Fortification, digestion, and bioavailability. Image Credit: marilyn barbone / Shutterstock.com

Is a plant-based diet better?

Consumers are increasingly adopting plant-based diets due to concerns regarding the environmental, health, and ethical effects of animal-sourced foods such as meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Animal-based foods have a detrimental impact on the environment due to their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, land usage, water usage, deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss.

While many believe that a plant-based diet is superior to one that includes animal products, this is not always true. Consuming fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole-grain cereals has been associated with better health outcomes; however, it remains unclear whether the newer plant-based foods, such as meat, seafood, egg, and dairy alternatives, are healthier than the products they aim to replace.

Comparing the nutritional profiles of animal- and plant-based foods

Meat

The researchers of the current study compared the nutritional content of a typical chicken nugget to two plant-based alternatives. Plant-based chicken nugget analogs had lower fat, calorie, and saturated fat content and a higher dietary fiber content than real chicken nuggets.

Both plant-based and real chicken nuggets’ carbohydrate, protein, and sodium levels were comparable. Overall, plant-based chicken nuggets may offer health benefits as compared to real chicken nuggets due to their lower fat, calorie, and saturated fat content.

Fish

Like meat, fish is a good source of high-quality protein that is easily digestible and contains all essential amino acids. However, real and plant-based 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 sodium levels and calories.

However, plant-based salmon has higher amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, and iron, potentially providing health benefits for humans. Notably, plant-based salmon products may not be suitable for individuals who need high protein levels in their diet.

Eggs

Eggs are a popular food choice throughout the world due to their high protein and nutrient content. Plant-based eggs have macronutrient profiles similar to real eggs, with comparable lipid and protein contents.

However, these products contain slightly higher calorie and carbohydrate contents. Furthermore, the micronutrient content of natural and plant-based eggs differ remarkably. For example, plant-based products exhibit higher zinc and iron content than real eggs, which is beneficial to health. Nevertheless, these alternative egg products also have higher sodium composition, which could have adverse effects on hypertension patients.  

Milk and dairy products

Commercial plant-based dairy products have varying compositions that depend on their formulation. Plant-based milk is made through either a top-down method, which involves grinding up plant materials like oats, nuts, or soybeans, or a bottom-up method, which involves homogenization of emulsifiers, plant-based oils, and water.

Top-down methods of producing plant-based milk, like oat, almond, or soy milk, generally contain fewer calories as compared to cow’s milk. Although these milk products may not have all the micronutrients present in cow’s milk, they are frequently enriched with nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, the bottom-up technique can be used to create plant-based milk that closely resembles the composition of natural milk.

Plant-based cheese products lack protein as compared to natural cheeses, which consist of 14% to 30% protein. Plant-based cheeses also have a higher carbohydrate content, primarily in the form of starch, which is utilized to create a cheese-like consistency. Furthermore, plant-based cheeses have higher sodium levels than real cheese, which may pose a health risk for individuals with hypertension.

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 advantages of a more plant-based diet, a vegan or totally vegetarian diet can have significant disadvantages, especially for young children, pregnant women, and elderly persons. Essential amino acids, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc, calcium, and iron may be insufficient in plant-based diets, as they are found predominantly in foods originating from animals, such as meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products.

According to several nutritional studies, children raised on a purely vegan diet tend to be shorter and thinner than those raised on a standard omnivorous diet, and severe malnutrition may occasionally develop. Thus, a well-balanced plant-based diet with supplements may help prevent these unfavorable nutritional and health effects.

Conclusions

Consumers are increasingly adopting plant-based diets due to environmental and health-related concerns. As a result, the food industry must develop plant-based foods that contain essential macronutrients and micronutrients to address potential deficiencies in vegan or vegetarian diets. Nevertheless, plant-based foods can be fortified with health-promoting ingredients such as dietary fibers and nutraceuticals, which are not commonly found in animal products.

Further research is needed to understand the digestive process of plant-based foods and their effects on human health and nutrition.

Journal reference:

  • McClements, I. F., & McClements, D. J. (2023). Designing healthier plant-based foods: Fortification, digestion, and bioavailability. Food Research International 169. doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2023.112853

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