Plant-based dietary alternatives to animal products are better for the environment and human health than the animal products they are designed to replace, say the authors of a new study.
New work published in Food of the future argues that because these products are “specially created to replicate the taste, texture and overall feel of animal-based foods”, they are a far more effective way of reducing demand for meat and dairy products than simply encouraging people to eat vegetarian whole foods .
Research by psychologists at the University of Bath concludes that plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy “offer a healthier and more environmentally sustainable solution that takes into account consumer preferences and behaviour”.
The review examined 43 studies on health and environmental effects of plant-based products, as well as consumer attitudes. One study found that nearly 90% of consumers who ate plant-based meats and dairy products were actually meat eaters or flexitarians; another found that plant-based foods with the same taste, texture and cost as processed meat have the best chance of replacing meat.
The paper also found that these plant-based products cause lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than the animal products they replace. One study found that replacing 5% of Germany’s beef consumption with pea protein could reduce CO2 emissions by up to eight million tons per year. Another found that compared to beef burgers, plant-based burgers are associated with 98% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
The authors of the report believe that plant-based products generally require much less agricultural land, less water and pollute the environment than animal-based products.
Studies on the health of plant-based foods have also found that they tend to have better nutritional profiles compared to animal-based foods. One study found that 40% of conventional meat products were classified as “less healthy” compared to only 14% of plant-based foods. alternatives based on the UK Nutrient Profiling Model.
Others have found that plant-based meat and dairy products are good for weight loss and muscle building and can be used to help people with specific medical conditions. Food manufacturers can add ingredients such as edible mushrooms, microalgae, or spirulina to plant-based foods, enhancing properties such as amino acids, B and E vitamins, and antioxidants. Future innovations in processing and ingredients are likely to lead to further improvements in nutrition.
The report’s author, Dr Chris Bryant of the University of Bath, said: “Increasingly, we are seeing plant-based products being able to shift demand away from animal-based products by addressing the three key elements that consumers want: taste, price and convenience.
“This review shows compelling evidence that plant-based alternatives to animal products are not only significantly more sustainable than animal products in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use, but also have a wide range of health benefits.
“Despite the incredible strides made by plant-based producers in recent years, there is still huge potential to improve their taste, consistency and how they cook. There is also huge potential for innovation with ingredients and processes to improve their nutritional properties – for example, by increasing the vitamin content.’
The authors emphasize that despite the health benefits of these foods compared to meat, many personal factors will influence health, including overall caloric intake and exercise/activity levels.
Dr. Bryant suggests that more research will now be needed to make these improvements a reality, ensuring that producers can produce products that taste better, are healthier and provide consumers with sustainable options that are likely to reduce demand for meat.