How nutritious is veganism? Dietitians on key nutrients and areas for NPD

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27 Apr 2018 --- Vegan eating patterns have emerged from a relative niche position to one gaining increasing attention among consumers, the media and the food and beverage industry. New food and beverage launches with a vegan positioning found an average annual growth rate of +44.8 percent globally (CAGR ‘13-’17) when 2013 is used as a base of 100, an Innova Market Insights analysis has shown. However, despite its popularity, veganism has on occasion been criticized as being a fad and unbalanced in terms of nutrition. NutritionInsight speaks with three dietitians about veganism, key nutrients and how the food and beverage industry can help by spurring on appropriate NPD.

NutritionInsight: What are the key nutrients vegans may miss out on by not consuming animal-derived products? Is the consumption of supplements advisable?
“The nutrients that should be supplemented are vitamins B12 and K2, iodine, zinc and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA),” says Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT and author of Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiot's Guide) Second Edition. “Importantly, it is likely that the very nutrients vegan diets happen to be limited in may be – at least in part – what makes it so successful at reducing the risk of age-related chronic diseases. For example, saturated fat, excessive essential amino acids and heme iron have been associated with increased disease risk and are found in higher doses in animal products.” 

“Fortified foods and supplements play important roles. For example, dairy should be replaced by foods that are really rich in calcium, such as fortified plant-based alternatives to milk and yogurt,” says Heather Russell, Dietitian with the Vegan Society. “It’s essential to obtain vitamin B12 from a supplement and fortified foods, and iodine supplementation is arguably the best way of ensuring a reliable intake of this mineral. Selenium supplementation should be considered too, unless you’re eating a couple of Brazil nuts daily. Also, everyone in the UK should consider vitamin D supplementation during autumn and winter as a minimum; D3 from lichen and D2 are animal-free options.” 

Kirsty Barrett, a Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA), similarly highlights the importance of vitamin D.

“Vitamin D is generally advised for everyone during the winter months (September through April) anyway due to the sun light being at the wrong wavelength. You get some from food (e.g., fortified breakfast cereals, some plant-based milks, oily fish and eggs),” lists Barrett.

“Calcium - if choosing organic plant-based milks, non-organic versions are usually fortified with calcium to the same level as cows' milk, vegan cheese isn't usually fortified and some yogurts are, you would need to check the label. Bread is also a good source of calcium, kale is too. Calcium-set tofu can also be useful. Iodine [also could require supplementing as it is] usually found in cow's milk/dairy products, and also in white fish and seaweed. I can only think of two plant-based milks that are fortified with iodine so this generally needs to be supplemented,” Barret notes.

NutritionInsight: What sort of product categories could use further R&D to meet vegan demands? And what can the food and beverage sector do in this regard?

“The Vegan Society’s new ‘Catering for Everyone’ campaign is calling for good vegan food on public sector menus every day. In addition to meeting vegan needs, a strong vegan offering can promote inclusivity, sustainability and good nutrition. It’s important that manufacturers, suppliers and caterers are able to meet the increasing demand for vegan-friendly foods and drinks. In hospitals, nourishing options are required, like higher calorie meals and puddings, as well as healthy choices,” says Russel.

“I am concerned about vegans overconsuming highly processed and hyper-palatable foods now with the recent explosion of vegan products in the marketplace because I am seeing more vegans coming to me for similar health issues typically associated with an omnivorous diet,” states Hever.

“Some of the plant-based meat and dairy substitutions have similar nutritional profiles as the animal product it is emulating. I would love to see more whole food plant products such as ready-to-eat convenience foods that are not filled with sugars, oils, flours and salts, on the market,” she says.

Barret, meanwhile, notes that the possibilities for NPD in fortified dairy alternatives.

“Definitely plant-based milks, I think there is a massive gap in the market for a plant-based milk fortified with iodine. More calcium fortified yogurts also would be good,” Barret says. 

NutritionInsight: Is veganism ultimately a healthy or advisable diet for all?
“The Vegan Society works with the British Dietetic Association to share the message that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living for people of all ages. We recommend that anyone with concerns about their diet talks to their doctor about seeing a dietitian for expert support,” Russel says.

“According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and for athletes,” notes Hever.

The vegan diet is “completely safe as long as it is well considered and can be extremely healthy due to high intake of fruit, vegetables and fiber. I think it does require some planning and also accepting that you most likely will need to supplement something,” Barrett concludes.

By Lucy Gunn

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