Despite the growing popularity of meat replacers and dairy analogues and their clear proposition regarding positive environmental impact (Perraud et al., 2023), there has been a rising concern about the healthiness of these products, especially as some of their labels are very similar to those of ultra-processed foods.
Are all plant-based diets healthy?
From its conception, a diet rich in plants and vegetables could be immediately related to a healthy diet and actually resembles the “traditional” vegan diet composed of whole foods like legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which has proven to meet all the nutritional requirements for health (Gallagher et al., 2021). However, it is still unclear if modern vegan diets in which consumption of ultra-processed foods represents an important caloric intake, could deliver these same benefits. In the next section, we will discuss more about the different plant-based diets and their connection to health and try to shed some light on the topic.
A cross-sectional study by Tehran University of Medical Sciences, with the aim of studying the association between plant-based diet quality, inflammation markers and sleep quality, has shown a link between the increased presence of inflammation markers and a low-quality plant-based diet (Pourreza et al., 2021) . This type of diet is mainly composed of vegan ultra-processed foods rather than whole foods, while in the traditional vegan diet with numerous amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, those markers were not identified. A big concern for these results is that those identified inflammation markers are linked with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune diseases and diabetes (Walsh et al., 2023).
Thus, what is the main difference between traditional and modern plant-based/vegan diets? The presence of ultra-processed food products. Ultra-processed foods, vegan or not, face similar problems like an increase in n-6 linolenic acid intake, followed by a decrease in n-3 sources, low amounts of protein, high amounts of sugar, saturated fat and sodium and a low amount of micronutrients like zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D and selenium (Ohlau et al., 2022, Koutentakis et al., 2023). All of the listed factors have been associated with higher occurrences of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases, imbalances in glucose regulation and blood lipid profile (Kim et al., 2020, Koutentakis et al., 2023b).
But not all the plant-based products in the supermarket enter the classification of ultra-processed foods. At the moment, many of the offers on the shelves of supermarkets are entering the NOVA classification of ultra-processed foods (Harvard T.H Chan, 2023), but the composition of plant-based products is very heterogeneous, and the ingredients used for their formulation and therefore the nutritional profile too. However, the overuse of salt and food additives is a constant as well as the restricted amount of crops used for their formulation: such as soy, pea and coconut.
Diversity of ingredients for healthier diets
Currently, there are at least 50,000 species of plants suitable for human consumption, however, only 300 are being utilized by the food industry. This homogeneity trend is a result of an effort to simplify the processing techniques performed by the industry, in order to reduce the amount of resources and labor needed, as well as cut costs. As a consequence, many highly nutritional crops that present good techno-functionalities for food products have been overlooked. Underutilized crops include various types of grains, millets and quinoa, to mention some examples (Massawe et al., 2016). Another important source of very valuable plant-based ingredients lies in food waste streams coming from the production of our current plant-based ingredients, which are mostly allocated as animal feed or simply unutilized.
Among these underutilized crops and streams, a big diversity of nutrients and even techno-functionalities can be found for example, through naturally occurring compounds such as lecithin and different protein structures or other natural structures like oleosomes. The incorporation of these valuable ingredients to the food supply chain could tackle some of the key problems of the current processed food products like the amount of protein, healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamins. Moreover, the techno-functionalities that they could provide, are instead sourced from many synthetic or semi-synthetic additives. However many of these additives are usually nutritionally poor and some studies have seen correlations between the increased use of some emulsifiers such as methylcellulose (Partridge et al., 2019) and thickeners such as carrageenan to a higher occurrence of gut inflammation, and even a potential carcinogenic effect (Tobacman, 2001).
Could canola ingredients contribute to the formulation of healthier plant-based products?
Canola seeds have been used for years, but only for its oil, while the oil from the crop only represents around 40% of the seeds. Therefore side/waste streams coming from the canola oil industry account worldwide for 40 MTon per year. However, when analyzing the different components in the seed (Figure 1), one can see that the seed and therefore the oil side streams are full of proteins, antioxidants and other relevant nutrients, which could potentially improve the health profile of plant-based products.
Figure.1 Adapted from (Cheng et al., 2022) and (Goyal et al., 2020)
As we have learned during this blog, plant-based is not per se equal to health, especially when the majority of the caloric intake comes from supermarket plant-based products. However, not everything is lost. Even though these products often fall into the category of ultra-processed food, with the health problems it implies, there are different ways to make improvements, which could also solve some other food industry problems like the generation of side/waste streams. As the food industry is currently updating and re-shaping it is now a perfect moment to correct and improve, and hopefully, the creation of plant-based foods will demand the creation of more nutritious processed foods.
In the coming entry of our blog, we will go in more detail on techno-functionality and nutrition quality, of course reflecting especially on our favourite crop: Canola! If you find this blog interesting, please feel free to share it with others that you believe will also enjoy reading and be sure to follow us so you can stay updated when the next entry is ready.
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