June, 2022

Is plant-based food intrinsically sustainable?

The health and sustainability halo of plant-based foods

Plant-based diets have always been associated with the concepts of health and sustainability, as they are perceived as food systems that have the potential not only to improve human health, but also to reduce the environmental impact associated with the high consumption of animal foods, such as meat and dairy products.

But what does a plant-based diet mean?

Plant-based diets include a variety of diets that emphasize the consumption of plant products while encouraging the reduction or exclusion of animal products. Plant-based diets include the vegan diet, which leaves out all animal products; the vegetarian diet, which cuts out products such as meat and fish; and semi-vegetarian (flexitarian) diets, which include animal products in small amounts. Although some plant-based diets, such as veganism, are raising concerns about micronutrient deficiencies, these are suggested by the World Health Organization as part of a healthy lifestyle, largely associated with a lower risk of premature mortality and cardiovascular disease associated with large consumption of red and processed meat.

The other side of the coin: ultra-processed plant-based foods

We are used to associate plant-based diets with healthy, whole, minimally processed plant foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. However, with the growing demand for easy, ready-to-use plant-based products, plant-based diets are changing, pushing ultra-processed, convenient and affordable plant-based foods.

Let’s take a step back: what does ultra-processed food mean?

According to the document drafted by the World Health Organization, “Plant-based diets and their impact on health, sustainability and the environment: a review of the evidence,” , from the definition of the NOVA classification system, ultra-processed foods are combinations of starches, sugars, fats and proteins, fortified with flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and other additives to improve shelf life, palatability and visual appearance. Snacks, beverages, and ready meals are usually included in this category.

These products include so-called meat-like products, beverages, cheese and vegetable-based yogurts, as they are produced with a high level of processing and added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, oil, thickening agents and stabilizers.

For example, according to the article The food system and climate change: are plant-based diets becoming unhealthy and less environmentally sustainable? plant-based beverages are generally associated with the concept of sustainability because most of the ingredients used generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional milk. However, there are environmental issues linked to some ingredients, such as almonds, which are often farmed in drought-affected areas, further weighing in water-stressed areas of the world. Similarly, alternatives to meat may also be more efficient in terms of emissions and water use than their industrially produced animal counterparts. However, it is not a given that they are definitely sustainable products, as they might, for example, use high amounts of ingredients for fully replicate animal meat, or because of the elaborate production process or transportation.

Yes, plant-based foods may be sustainable, but there is still room for improvements

For a plant-based product to be considered genuinely healthy and sustainable, it must deliver the benefits generated, in both environmental and social terms. There are still aspects in many products that need to be improved in terms of nutritional quality, as well as from an environmental perspective, to demonstrate that they are truly sustainable not only when compared to their animal counterpart, but as a product in their own right. This leaves room for further innovation in several areas: in terms of product, starting with reducing the list of ingredients used, as well as in the area of process optimization, as well as raw material sourcing, trying to enhance crops and protect the soil, preserving its biodiversity.