Unilever calls for better plant-based diet public health strategies amid planetary and wellness benefits
03 Jan 2022 --- Unilever scientists are arguing that plant-based diets are generally better for health and the environment.
In a new review, the researchers conclude that public health strategies should facilitate the transition to a balanced diet with more diverse nutrient-dense plant foods through consumer education, food fortification and possibly supplementation.
“The nutrition industry also has an important role to play in helping consumers shift to a diet consisting of more plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses and nuts,” Ans Eilander, lead scientist at Unilever and a study author, tells NutritionInsight.
A multi-pronged approach
Eilander explains that in plant-based meat alternatives, fortification helps add nutrients that are more difficult to get from some plant-based foods such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine.
“Supplements can also help to increase micronutrient intake when it’s difficult to get the nutrients from food.”
Additionally, Eilander notes that consumer education is key in promoting a diverse nutrient-dense diet incorporating more plant-based foods.
“Both the F&B industry and public health bodies have an important role to play in helping consumers transition to a more nutritionally adequate diet. 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 says.
Unilever targets plant-based growth
In 2020, Unilever announced its “Future Foods” ambition, which aims to help people transition toward healthier diets and to help reduce the environmental impact of the global food chain.
“As part of this, we announced an annual global sales target of €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-2027, and a commitment to double the number of products delivering positive nutrition globally by 2025,” explains Eilander.
The food giant is also encouraging consumers to eat a variety of plant-based foods through programs such as Knorr’s Future 50 Foods and on-pack recipe inspiration.
“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. For example, The Vegetarian Butcher’s vegan raw burger is fortified with vitamin B12 and iron.”
Key nutrient differences
Unilever’s systematic review, now published in Nutrients, takes into account 141 observational and intervention studies published between 2000 and January 2020.
“The main insight is that there were nutrient inadequacies in all diets. In all diet groups, people are not consuming a sufficient variety of foods from different food groups to get all the nutrients they need. This highlights the importance of educating consumers on the vital role different food groups play in their diet,” notes Eilander.
In general, plant-based diets were higher in essential nutrients like fiber, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), folate, vitamin C, vitamin E and magnesium. While protein intake was lower in plant-based diets, it was still “well within” the recommended intake levels.
However, vegetarians and vegans had lower intake levels of EPA and DHA than meat-eaters. Additionally, intake and status of vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and bone turnover markers were generally lower.
Vegans had the lowest vitamin B12, calcium and iodine intake, and also lower iodine status and lower bone mineral density.
Public health implications
The researchers conclude that a shift to a diet with more plant foods and fewer animal foods can improve the intake of fiber, PUFA, folate, vitamin B1, B6, C, E, and magnesium and subsequently benefit health outcomes.
However, they flag that careful planning is needed to consume a nutritious plant-based diet as there is a risk of inadequate nutrient intake. For example, intakes of fiber and vitamin E may be insufficient for vegetarians when foods rich in these nutrients are not consumed in adequate amounts.
Therefore, in the transition to more healthy plant-based diets, health authorities will need to educate consumers to adopt a diverse diet with foods rich in these nutrients and facilitate behavior change.
Questioning supplementation efficacy
For vitamin B12, which is absent in plant foods, and for vitamin D and iodine, which can naturally only be found in a limited number of foods, additional public health strategies are needed, note the researchers. This could include food fortification and universal salt iodization.
They also found that mean intakes of other micronutrients hardly differed between studies that assessed intake from foods only or from foods and supplements.
Therefore, supplement use may not always be the preferred strategy to improve micronutrient intake as they are possibly used by a select group of people who are health-conscious and can afford them.
As rising numbers of consumers adopt plant-based diets, the nutritional merits and drawbacks have been under sharp scrutiny. In August, a Kaneka study found that ubiquinol plasma levels in plant-based consumers are 23 percent lower than in omnivores.
However, NPD in this space has flourished. One example is SternVitamin, which recently unveiled a range of plant-based premixes that not only prevent deficiencies but also meet certain target-group-specific needs.
By Katherine Durrell
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