Plant-Based Meat and Dairy Substitutes as Appropriate Alternatives to Animal-Based Products?

Khandpur N, Martinez-Steele E, Sun Q. Plant-Based Meat and Dairy Substitutes as Appropriate Alternatives to Animal-Based Products? The Journal of Nutrition. 2020;151(1):3-4. 

Relevant to: 

All Dietitians-Nutritionists.

Question: 

This commentary poses practice and research questions about the nutrition and environmental consequences of the increased production and intake of ultra-processed plant-based meat and dairy substitutes. Their commentary reflects upon results from a study also reviewed on this website:  

Gehring J, Touvier M, Baudry J, Julia C, Buscail C, Srour B, et al. Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods by Pesco-Vegetarians, Vegetarians, and Vegans: Associations with Duration and Age at Diet Initiation. The Journal of Nutrition. 2020;151(1):120-31. 

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

The Gehring et al. (2020) article illustrated a high intake of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes (PMDSs) by vegetarians. The study classified these foods as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), based on the NOVA classification of foods by level of processing (see: of additional interest). The authors of the commentary suggest that the substantial increase in the development and marketing of these products over the last few years has the potential to have a large impact on the nutritional quality of diets for vegetarians (and we would argue for any transitioning to a more plant-based diet).  

The authors of this commentary argue that we need a greater knowledge of PMDSs, including their degree of processing and the nutrient profile of the individual foods and the dietary patterns within which they are consumed. They also call for more research on the health and environmental impacts of PMDSs, as well as research instruments to examine these questions.  

Abstract:

N/A (Commentary)  

Details of results: 

Research trends in Europe suggest that the market for PMDSs will grow by almost 75% between 2018-2023. While the authors note that these products help in the transition toward a plant-based diet, they suggest that it is important to examine how this increase will affect nutritional intake. For example, while eating high quality plant-based foods rather than red meat has shown health benefits, this may not be true for replacing meat with low quality plant-based carbohydrates.   

On one hand, the authors cite an industry-funded trial showing several beneficial effects of the plant-based substitutes (when compared with equivalent animal products), including lowering LDL-cholesterol. However, the authors also cite a 2019 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report linking the intake of both plant and animal origin UPFs with chronic diseases (see “Additional Information”). They suggest that evidence about nutritional quality and the health impacts may also influence how these products are scored by measurement tools such as Alternative Healthy Eating Index and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.  

The authors also note that the environmental impacts of this shift need to be examined, including the production systems for PMDSs, which may differ from current systems and thus have the potential for different impacts.  

Of additional interest: 

The four NOVA levels of food by level of processing include: 1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods; 2. Processed culinary ingredients; 3. Processed foods; and 4. Ultra-processed foods. 

For more information on the NOVA classification see: Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M.L. and Pereira Machado, P.2019. Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome, FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/ca5644en/ca5644en.pdf 

Food and Agriculture Organization. Ultra-processed foods, diet quality and human health. Rome, Italy: FAO; 2019. Available from: http://www.fao.org/publications/card/en/c/C A5644EN/  

Editor’s comment:  

There is such a wide variation in PMDS products. For example, some plant based “meat” patties have many additives, whereas some have a minimal amount of ingredients. It seems that there should be a way to differentiate between these foods. 
A discussion about this term can be found at:  
https://www.tabledebates.org/building-blocks/what-ultra-processed-food-and-why-do-people-disagree-about-its-utility-concept 

 The shift toward more PMDSs also has the potential to shift overall intake toward specific foods. For example, rice can be a significant ingredient in some of these foods. As some rice has naturally occurring arsenic, does this pose a problem?   

We would also note that social sustainability of these shifts also needs to be considered. For example, the increased intake of quinoa by the West is purported to have decreased the availability of the food for local consumption where originally grown.  

See also on this site a synopsis of: Smetana S, Mathys A, Knoch A, Heinz V. Meat alternatives: life cycle assessment of most known meat substitutes. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. 2015 2015/09/01;20(9):1254-67. 

Open access link to article: 

N/A 

Conflict of interest/ Funding:  

No conflicts declared 

External relevant links:  

Corresponding author: 

neha.khandpur@usp.br 

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