Plant-based doesn't always mean healthy
Veganuary can be bad for your health — and the planet
As supermarkets cash in on Veganuary, just how healthy are vegan meals?
These are all headlines from January 2022 and they drive home a clear message: plant-based’s health credentials are under serious scrutiny right now. Whether it’s over their salt and fat content, long and unfamiliar ingredient lists, use of methylcellulose or novel processing techniques, plant-based brands face tough questions about what’s in their products, how they’re made and how beneficial they are for health and wellbeing.
Henry Dimbleby’s recent comments at the Oxford Farming Conference illustrate the challenge facing the sector. Asked about the health implications of shifting to a more plant-based diet, he remarked that some highly processed plant-based nuggets were “just as bad for you – and maybe even worse for you – than fried chicken nuggets”.
Now, nuggets are not generally positioned as a health food. One of the frustrations with the current debate is that it often implies every single plant-based brand is trying to market itself as healthy. This is clearly not true. In fact, some have actively embraced the ‘dirty vegan’ ethos to prove to consumers that you can forego animal products and still enjoy tasty treats. Such brands should not be attacked for lacking health credentials they never claimed to have in the first place.
But there is no denying that the overall category has benefited from a health halo. In a consumer poll by The Grocer and Lumina Intelligence Brits named health as their top reason for taking part in Veganuary, and a recent European study on plant-based, which included the UK, found that health is the second-most important factor after taste for UK consumers when choosing plant-based products.
To keep growing, the sector will therefore need to respond to consumers’ questions and concerns around health.
Simplifying ingredient decks is an obvious starting point, and many brands and retailers are already moving in this direction. Take Waitrose’s recent Go Veggie and Plantlife ranges, which are heavy on vegetables and described as being made with “recognisable ingredients”. Spanish startup Heura is another example: it emphasises its use of olive oil to create more nutritious meat alternatives.
Going big on veg and familiar ingredients is a smart move for several reasons. Nearly 70% of Brits say they want to eat more fruit and veg, according to research by the Food Standards Agency, so including more produce allows brands to align their products with one of consumers’ top health priorities. It also chimes with shopper preferences for simpler ingredients. In the European study, 63% of Brits said they look for food products that are minimally processed, with potatoes named as the number one ingredient they would like to see in plant-based foods.
Having said that, consumers are asking questions about more than just ingredients lists. Research suggests they also have more fundamental concerns about the health and nutritional benefits of plant-based foods. In that European study, nearly 40% of Brits said they would worry about their health if they ate only plant-based foods.
Concerns about protein and iron loom large in this context: 31% of Brits believe there is not enough protein in plant-based foods and 29% of Brits believe they don’t contain enough iron. A similar number voice concerns about gut health, with 31% of Brits worried about indigestion, bloating and flatulence from plant-based foods.
To address such concerns, more and better consumer education about how to achieve a healthy, balanced plant-based or flexitarian diet will be key. New product labels could also play a role. In the US, for example, Plantricious acts as a certification scheme to help consumers identify plant-based foods that are nutrient-dense, high in fibre and generally good for health. To be certified, products have to be made with whole foods, minimally processed, low in salt, high in fibre and contain no added oils, sugars or artificial additives and preservatives.
Whether a similar approach could work in the UK remains to be seen. The scheme is relatively small and it’s not yet clear whether it can reach sufficient scale. What’s more, consumers are already bombarded with labels and on-pack messages, so retailers and brands will be wary about adding even more. Still, the fact that such a scheme exists shows that parts of the plant-based sector are taking the possibility of a consumer backlash over health very seriously indeed.
Plant-based brands, in the UK and elsewhere, will no doubt be keeping a very close eye on it in 2022.