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Plant-based diets are taking root

June 28, 2017

Lentils, nuts, vegetablesAsked to address the question of whether plant-based eating is a fad, IFT17 session presenter Steven Walton, general manager of research firm HealthFocus International, answered with an emphatic no and shared a variety of statistics to support that position. In fact, speaking in a session titled “The Plant-Based Diet Evolution: The Consumer, Scientific Evidence, and Food Formulation,” Walton suggested that the trend toward plant-based eating may be more of a revolution than an evolution. “I believe that plant-based eating is a game-changing trend,” he said.
Walton suggested that much current research into consumer dietary patterns may underestimate the extent to which consumers are embracing plant-based eating. He said recent HealthFocus research shows that 60% of consumers say they are cutting back on meat-based eating, and 17% of those aged 15–70 claim to eat a predominantly plant-based diet. Younger consumers (members of Gen X and Millennials) are driving this trend. These consumers are not necessarily labeling themselves as vegans or vegetarians, however, Walton pointed out.

What’s more, once consumers begin to adopt a healthier eating pattern, they intend to stick with it, Walton said. In HealthFocus research, more than half (55%) of those who had moved toward more plant-based eating said they were committed to making it a permanent change and another 22% said that they hope the change is a permanent one.

In fact, Walton said, a trend toward declining consumption of meat-based products began showing up in the HealthFocus research database nearly a decade ago. “We saw this emerging,” he said. “We saw [consumers’] desire for more fruits and vegetables in their diet.” Consumers may not have embraced the concept of plant-based eating, per se, but they were clearly heading that way, he observed.

Despite consumers’ growing interest in adding more plant-based fare to their diets, Walton does not see it as completely undermining interest in animal-based protein. “I don’t believe that it is meat versus plant,” he said. “That is not what is driving this revolution in plant-based eating. There are parallel influences. Animal protein is not without key benefits.” Walton said the focus on plant-based eating is driven by three factors: long-term health, daily health, and social reasons (including animal treatment and concerns about the environment).

There are barriers to increased plant-based eating, however, Walton said. These include taste, nutritional sufficiency, convenience, cost, availability, and uncertainty about food preparation. “Some of these issues may be perceived,” said Walton. “Some are real. But I think they can all be overcome.”

After Walton set the stage with a look at consumer trends, session presenter Penny Kris-Etherton of Pennsylvania State University followed up with a discussion of health benefits associated with plant protein consumption and pointed out that current Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage consumers to increase consumption of plant-based foods.

Specific research findings Kris-Etherton cited include the following: vegetable protein intake has been associated with a 34% reduction in risk of fatal ischemic heart disease; higher vegetable protein and lower carbohydrate intake are linked to a 20% reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality; and a lower-carbohydrate, higher-vegetable diet is linked to a 10% reduction in the risk of diabetes. Plant-based diets are also associated with weight management and a reduction in breast cancer risk along with a host of other benefits.

After documenting the many health benefits associated with plant protein consumption, Kris-Etherton challenged product developers to formulate a broader array of products that help consumers add more plant protein to their diets while avoiding nutrients of concern such as sodium, fat, and added sugars.

Finally in the session, applications scientist Austin Lowder of DuPont Nutrition & Health offered a look at some of the challenges and opportunities plant protein presents in product formulation. He encouraged product developers to come up with unique plant-based formulations that don’t attempt to duplicate animal protein products but instead offer something that is truly new and different. That may help promote consumer acceptance, he noted.