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Food scientists warn that plant-based choices are not always healthier than regular foods because of the amount of saturated fat, salt, and sugar used to make plant-based food.
While meat-eaters continue to rise worldwide, food scientists are looking at ways to invent better-tasting, healthier, and more environmental plant-based protein items that resemble milk, cheese, fish, meat, and eggs.
It is a challenging task, explains the world’s leading food scientist David Julian McClements, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods
“With Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat as well as other foods coming to market, there is a substantial curiosity in plant-based foods for better sustainability, ethical and health reasons,” explained McClements, an expert in nanotechnology and food, he is the author of Future Foods: How Modern Science Is Transforming the Way We Eat.
In 2019, McClements’s paper shows that the market for plant-based foods in the United States was about $5 billion, with 41% of sales in the milk category and 19% in plant-based meat products. That shows a market growth of 29% since 2017.
With funding from the Good Food Institute and the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, McClements is the head of his team at UMass Amherst, looking at the science for creating a better plant-based protein.
Lutz Grossmann, assistant professor, recently joined the UMass Amherst science team; McClements said he is an expert in alternative protein sources.
The Meatless Food Industry
The plant-based food industry is quickly growing to keep up with consumer demand. However, in his paper, McClements wrote, “from a nutritional perspective, a plant-based diet isn’t always a better alternative than an omnivore diet.”
According to Grossmann, plant-based foods must be given micronutrients you would naturally find in animal milk, eggs, and meat, especially vitamin D, zinc, and calcium. In addition, plant-based food must be digestible and require the full spectrum of essential amino acids.
McClements says that most plant-based foods are highly processed, plant-based meat items are unhealthy as they are packed full of saturated fat, sugar, and salt. Although, he said that ultra-processed food doesn’t necessarily have to be unhealthy.
McClements adds, “we are trying to create a healthy processed food industry.”
“Our main goal is to design meatless products that contain all the vitamins and minerals a person requires and have healthy attributes such as dietary fibre and phytochemicals, allowing it to taste great and are convenient, cheap, and you can easily add them to your everyday life. As of now, though, we are not there yet for most of the products.”