People often think that a plant-based diet is the same as a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it’s actually a diet mostly made up of plant foods. This can be fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses like beans, nuts and seeds, and can also include small amounts of meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy.
Plant-based diets are increasingly popular because of worries around the negative impact that eating animal products has on our health, animal welfare, the environment and sustainability. With the trend moving towards a more plant-based way of eating, the market for plant-based alternatives is growing, giving rise to many new plant-based products.
What are plant-based alternatives?
Plant-based alternatives are a type of food designed to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of meat, milk and other dairy products but are instead made from plant-based foods including soy, peas, nuts, wheat, oats or from fungus like mycoprotein.
With more people spending money on these types of food, UK supermarkets have expanded their ranges to include meat-free burgers, mince and sausages, “chicken-less” fillets and nuggets, “fish-less” fingers and fillets, and plant-based milks, cheese and yoghurts.
When you hear the words “plant-based”, you may think it’s a healthier choice because they’re made from plants. But how nutritious they are depends on the ingredients and level of processing involved in making them.
Are plant-based alternatives healthier?
Some plant-based alternatives can be a good source of protein and fibre and, if they’ve been fortified, can provide certain vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, iron, zinc and iodine that are naturally found in meat and dairy. So if choosing a plant-based alternative, check the nutrition label to see if it has been fortified with certain vitamins and minerals – this will often be found on the back of the packaging.
However, many plant-based alternatives are considered ultra-processed food because they’ve undergone industrial processes and are typically made with flavour enhancers like monosodium glutamate, emulsifiers like soy or sunflower lecithin, and other chemical additives to make them look and taste like meat and dairy. On top of this, some products can be particularly high in salt.
There is a growing amount of research showing that ultra-processed foods are bad for our health. A recent study funded by World Cancer Research Fund found that people who ate more ultra-processed food had an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer. One of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations is to limit ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugar. So, as part of this recommendation, it’s best to only eat ultra-processed plant-based alternatives occasionally.
If you’re wondering how to recognise if a food is ultra-processed, there are a couple of things to look out for. First, check the nutrition label and see how many ingredients are in it – more than 5 ingredients mean it’s likely to be ultra-processed. Second, look for unusual ingredients on the label – this could be colourings like paprika extract, preservatives like potassium lactate, thickeners like methyl cellulose or carrageenan, or other additives indicated by E numbers.
The verdict on plant-based alternatives
We know that eating more plant foods and limiting red and processed meat is good for our health, including lowering our cancer risk. However, this is only really the case when the majority of our diet is unprocessed or minimally processed food such as fresh, frozen and tinned vegetables and fruit, pulses including dried or tinned chickpeas and lentils, wholegrains such as oats, brown rice and quinoa, and plant proteins such as tofu and tempeh.
So if you’re thinking of trying more plant-based eating, here are our suggestions:
- Compare ingredients and nutrition labels of similar products and opt for those with lower amounts of fat, sugar and salt – this can be done by comparing traffic light labelling on the front of food packaging. Check out our guide Making sense of food and drink labelling.
- Eat more unprocessed or minimally processed plant-based food: fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, fresh or dried herbs and spices, oats, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, couscous, chickpeas, lentils, and unsalted nuts and seeds. For inspiration, check out our blog: Could you eat 30 plant foods a week?
- Consider making swaps to dishes that usually have meat in them. Why not swap lamb mince for lentils in a shepherd’s pie, or kidney beans instead of beef mince for a spicy bean burger?