Plant-based proteins are healthy, sustainable and nutrient dense
By Deanna Rosolen
They fit perfectly with clean-label marketing. They’re healthy. They’re sustainable. They’re nutrient dense. What’s not to like about plant-based proteins?
They’re also a market that’s growing. According to a report called Plant-Based Profits: Investment Risks & Opportunities in Sustainable Food Systems, “annual global sales of plant-based meat alternatives have grown on average eight per cent a year since 2010.” The report, by U.K.-based Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), also adds that, “alternative proteins and flexitarian diets were named key food trends in 2017 and 2018.”
Plant-based proteins include pulses, algae, duckweed or water lentils, chia, hemp and faba. But they can also include pumpkin and butternut squash, says Ben Carnevale, manager of Sales and Research & Development for Cambridge, Ont.-based Blendtek. “Butternut squash and pumpkin, believe it or not, have a high ratio of protein,” he says. Carnevale is looking at pumpkin and hemp and combinations of the two, which he says can be used in baked goods and beverages. And by combining them, he adds, you’ve created a nutrient-dense product.
Why are they good for us?
Alison Duncan says plant proteins have some benefits that are unique to them. Duncan, who is professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, explains that plant proteins don’t contain cholesterol, do contain dietary fibre, are low in fat (with the exception of nuts), and often contain phytochemicals. The phytochemicals are a bonus. The compounds “help plants in many ways to survive and fight stress,” says Duncan, “and there’s more and more research showing they also help our bodies survive longer and fight off disease.”
Plant proteins also offer health benefits. Duncan points to a recent study from the University of Toronto that found replacing one or two servings of animal proteins with different types of plant proteins each week can help “decrease heart disease risk factors like LDL cholesterol.”
Carnevale says another benefit of plant proteins is that they’re more absorbable. As he explains, “Vegan proteins are much more easily identified in your body…and they absorb better, meaning they metabolize more readily.”
And while plant proteins are good for any group at any life stage, both Duncanand Carnevale happen to be doing research with older adults. Duncan has studied bean consumption by older adults, since this age group can particularly benefit from the nutrientdensity that beans and pulses offer. “As we age we might have lower appetites,” says Duncan, “and so we need to be more strategic about the foods we choose, ensuring that they have as many nutrients as we can get — we don’t want older adults to be eating low-nutrient foods and getting full on those.”
Carnevale’s work has focused on creatingnutrient-dense, low-cost products for older adults. For instance, in many cases the oatmeal and puddings they are served “are very low-cost and low-nutrient products, so they’re not getting the right vitamins and nutrients,” he explains. But if hemp or pumpkin protein, or a combination of the two, is added to a regular chocolate pudding, “you can impact even a low-cost, low-nutrient product with something as simple as protein powders.”
The sustainability factor of plant-based proteins has been a huge draw for consumers, especially millennials. Both Duncan and Carnevale say most consumers are keen to know how their food choices affect the environment. “Consumers are thinking about the foods they consume and they’re thinking about the future — ensuring that future generations have a healthy and secure food supply,” says Duncan. “There’s data showing that when plant proteins replace animal proteins there is less environmental impact.”