From improving our health to reducing greenhouse gases, the benefits of a plant-based diet are well known. But can we really get all the nutrition we need without animal meat or dairy products?
Historically, this question has presented a barrier to plant-based eating for many people. Now, however, thanks to carried out by Unilever lead scientist Ans Eilander and nutrition specialist Nicole Neufingerl, we may have some answers.
Their new scientific research provides the first systematic overview (reviewing energy, macro and micronutrients in one study) of the nutritional benefits and inadequacies of a wide variety of diets ranging from vegan to meat based, and in consequence offers valuable insights into the future needs and wants of consumers.
“With the results [of this research], we can play an important role in facilitating nutritious plant-based eating and driving more diverse nutrient-dense plant foods through consumer education, food fortification and possibly supplementation,” says Ans.
The report showed that in general plant-based diets are higher in fibre, polyunsaturated fatty acids (healthy fats), folate, vitamin C, vitamin E and magnesium than meat-based diets. Protein intake was also lower in plant-based diets, albeit still well within the recommended intake levels. However, meat-based diets were generally higher in iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin B12, EPA and DHA.
But what was perhaps more surprising was the revelation that in all dietary patterns – from vegans to meat-eaters – there was a risk of inadequate intake of some nutrients.
“In all the types of diets studied, ranging from meat-eaters to vegans, we found people are not consuming a sufficient variety of foods to get all the nutrients they need,” Ans says. “This highlights the importance of educating consumers on the vital role different food groups play in their diet.”
Making plant-based food accessible
Ans believes the food and beverage industry has an important role to play not only in helping people transition to healthier plant-based diets but also in ensuring that they get the nutrients they need from them. “Consumer education is key in promoting a diverse nutrient-dense diet incorporating more plant-based foods,” she says.
Unilever’s programme, for example, launched by Knorr and the WWF, aims to inspire and help people access and eat a wider variety of highly nutritious planet-friendly, plant-based food. Similarly, Hellmann’s Better for You recipes suggest easy ways to incorporate more plant-based foods into everyday meals.
On-package recipe ideas such as Knorr’s Lentil Bolognese are also helping to promote nutritious plant-forward ingredient swaps, although Ans is quick to point out that the aim is always to facilitate not force dietary change in consumers.
“It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all,” she explains.
Helping people super-charge their food
To this end, in 2020 Unilever committed to helping people transition to plant-based eating that is healthier for them and the planet through its Future Foods commitment. The business pledged to hit an annual sales target for plant-based foods of €1 billion, to grow its meat and dairy plant-based alternatives and to double the number of products with positive nutrients by 2025.
“When it comes to delivering positive nutrition in our products, fortification of our plant-based meat alternative products is one way we’re delivering on this,” says Ans. “For example, The Vegetarian Butcher’s vegan raw burger is fortified with vitamin B12 and iron.”
And the vegan burger is just one of the fortified foods on the Unilever menu. In fact, by the end of 2022, 200 billion servings of Unilever products will contain at least one critical micronutrient such as iodine, iron, zinc and vitamin A or D.
Working to ensure the future of food
But it is not just existing food products that are packing a nutritional plant-based punch. At Hive, Unilever’s foods innovation centre in the Netherlands, new sources of high-nutrition foods are constantly being explored.
“Whether it is micro algae rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids or protein-rich fungi, the aim is the same – to make future fit food that is good for us and for the planet,” says Manfred Aben, Global VP, Science & Technology, for Foods & Refreshment at Unilever.