Most people can’t imagine their diet without plenty of meat in it and see vegetables as side dishes at best. Yet meat production, especially beef, is a major driver of both environmental destruction and climate change.
To raise cattle, you need plenty of pasture, which often comes at the expense of forests that are cleared for good. Meanwhile, the methane emissions of cows through their burps and flatulence contribute to the global greenhouse effect (although some changes in the diets of cattle can help mitigate these methane emissions).
Encouragingly, in a bid to wean people off animal proteins, teams of scientists and food manufacturers are working on ways to make plant-based proteins not only more nutritious but also tastier.
“[A] plant-based diet is not necessarily better than an omnivore diet from a nutritional perspective,” explains Prof. David Julian McClements, a food scientist at the University of Massachusetts who is a coauthor of a study on how to design more nutritious plant-based diets.
The paper’s aim is to help food producers create healthier and tastier plant-based products for the sake of environmental sustainability as well as ethical reasons out of concern for the wellbeing of livestock.
As more and more people are turning to dominantly plant-based diets, the food industry is seeking to meet increasing demand through new plant-based products by replacing meat, egg, milk, cheese, and yogurt with plant-based substitutes. However, often that’s easier said than done as it remains a challenge to replicate the texture, flavor and nutritional value plant-derived products.
In order for plant-based products to compete with animal proteins, “they need to be fortified with micronutrients that are naturally present in animal meat, milk and eggs, including vitamin D, calcium and zinc. They also have to be digestible and provide the full complement of essential amino acids,” note McClements and his coauthor, Lutz Grossmann.
Moreover, these plant-based products should not be highly processed and overloaded in saturated fat, salt and sugar, which makes many current food items unhealthy. The market in plant-based processed foods was estimated to be around $5 billion in the United States alone in 2019, an increase of 29% from 2017.
But there is still a long way to go before plant-based foods can truly dominate people’s diets. That is why it is important to take a holistic approach in food production so as to create a new generation of healthy and environmentally sustainable plant-based foods to replace animal meat, eggs and milk, the experts stress.
“We’re trying to make processed food healthier,” McClements says. “We aim to design them to have all the vitamins and minerals you need and have health-promoting components like dietary fiber and phytochemicals so that they taste good and they’re convenient and they’re cheap and you can easily incorporate them into your life. That’s the goal in the future, but we’re not there yet for most products.”