Upcoming heroes of the 'healthy eating' game - Plant-based foods and beverages

Upcoming heroes of the 'healthy eating' game - Plant-based foods and beverages
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The world is witnessing a surge in health issues related to heart health, uncontrolled blood sugar, weight gain, and much more that can dramatically reduce a person’s quality of life. The ray of hope is that most consumers know these perils and are trying to keep their bodies healthy to enjoy a good life with loved ones. According to recent researches, following a plant-based diet one can achieve a healthy life.

An increasingly emerging shift towards vegetarianism and veganism, widely propagated by the sudden surge of plant-based food startups, is seen worldwide. The term 'plant-based diet' is a relatively new term the scientific community describes as eating patterns that emphasize a large proportion of plant-dominant foods. The inclination of the urban consumer is towards adopting non-meat sources of protein, which is precisely where plant-based animal product alternatives (PBAPAs) come into the picture. These can be plant-based meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and more. These products are developed to mimic their animal-based counterparts in terms of taste, texture, and nutritional profile.

A few noteworthy startups leading India’s plant-based alternatives market include Shaka Harry, ITC, Blue Tribe Foods, Vezlay Foods, Wakao Foods, Only Earth, Evo Foods, OatMilk, WhiteCub, and many more.

Plant-Based Animal Product Alternatives (PBAPAs)

There are various interpretations of a plant-based diet. Some consumers opt to be vegetarians, who, for protein, choose to eat plant-based foods, while others are vegans, who avoid animal products altogether. Some follow a flexitarian diet and eat plant-based foods with the occasional consumption of animal products. This diet seems to be a more practical approach to healthy eating as it is difficult for long-term meat eaters to give up animal products completely. The healthiness of the PBAPAs is explored below.

Nutritional profile

Research done on PBAPAs to compare them to their animal counterparts has shown that the PBAPAs possess lower saturated fat, energy density, and protein but are higher in salt and fiber. As per the UK's Nutrient Profiling Model, 40% of meat products were classified as ‘less healthy’ compared to 14% of PBAPAs. 46% of meat products were considered high in total fat, saturated fat, or salt, compared to 20% of PBAPAs.

Comparing beef and PBAPAs in the ground beef category brings to light two facts- first, the PBAPAs are a good source of iron, dietary fiber, copper, manganese, folate, and niacin and are low in saturated fat. The second is that the products are high in salt and contain less protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 than ground beef. Research also suggests that PBAPAs contain significantly lower levels of trans-fatty acids (2.39%–2.77%) associated with coronary heart disease) compared to beef burgers(5.82%–6.06%).

According to reports, PBAPAs can be a healthy replacement for meat if consumers choose products low in salt and sugar and high in fiber, protein, and micronutrients. An intelligent step will be if manufacturers and policymakers start fortifying PBAPAs with iron and vitamin B12 while reducing sugar and salt content. From a nutritional perspective, various positive health claims are available to PBAPAs and scope for future development to strengthen overall nutrition.

Weight loss

According to research, compared to animal products, mycoprotein (a single-cell protein made from fungi for human consumption) can reduce long-term hunger, improve blood lipid profiles, and reduce glycemia, thus offering potential benefits for obese or diabetic consumers. In randomized observation trials, lower body weight has been associated with plant proteins. Almond and soy milk have a balanced nutrient profile and low calories and can be part of a healthy diet to lose weight. The approximate number of calories in plant-based milk is about 39 calories per cup for almond milk and 131 calories per cup for soy milk compared to 148 calories in whole milk.

A healthy gut microbiome and cholesterol reduction

Replacing meat with PBAPAs has been seen to promote healthy gut microbiomes in individuals who occasionally replace meat with plant-based alternatives. As per studies, these alternatives also have a high enough beta-glucan content to qualify for European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) health claims that they can lower cholesterol.

Specific health conditions

Daily consumption of PBAPAs has been shown to reduce the risk of hip fractures by 49%. They also help lower the levels of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which is a molecule linked to cardiovascular disease. Studies also demonstrate that consuming mycoprotein meals reduces insulin responses in overweight individuals, which helps control blood sugar levels. Mycoprotein also helps in muscle synthesis. In summation, PBAPAs may benefit those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or risk of bone fractures.

Prevent premature deaths

As per research, including PBAPAs and animal products in the diet could prevent about 52,700 premature deaths yearly. At higher levels of PBAPA intake, over 85% of diet-related deaths, such as cancer, stroke, and heart diseases, are avoided.

Consumer perception

A section of the population believes that plant-based alternatives are unhealthy, unnatural, processed, and hurt the environment. However, research suggests that plant-based meat and dairy alternatives require less land and water, help lower greenhouse emissions, and produce less pollution than their animal-based counterparts. Besides weight loss and muscle building, they offer health benefits like vitamins, antioxidants, and amino acids.

Some consumers think that processing food to obtain plant-based alternatives degrades its quality. However, in products like legumes, processing helps reduce the anti-nutrient factors and improves the protein’s digestibility. Studies have also shown that pea protein or algae protein burgers are noted to be healthier than beef burgers, albeit considered less tasty. PBAPAs are fortified with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, which are usually difficult to obtain in a plant-based diet.

What the future holds

The future of plant-based foods and beverages is promising. Priority should be given to making the plant-based alternatives healthier, cheaper, and more pleasing to the palate. Further research on improving the products’ nutritional properties, sensory qualities, and affordability can help push the envelope to occupy a significant portion of consumers’ diets worldwide. Research conducted by the Good Food Institute revealed that 63% of Indian consumers were very or extremely likely to purchase plant-based meat regularly. This shows that the plant-based market has immense potential in the coming future and is not a trend that will eventually fade away.

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