Are plant-based diets the latest fad? Not according to Steven Walton, general manager of research firm HealthFocus International, speaking at the International Food Technology conference in Last Vegas on June 28, 2017.

“I believe that plant-based eating is a game-changing trend,” Mr Walton said, claiming the dietary trend to be more of a “revolution than an evolution”.

Mr Walton suggested that much current research into consumer dietary patterns may underestimate the extent to which consumers are embracing plant-based eating.

He said recent HealthFocus research shows:

  • 60% of consumers say they are cutting back on meat-based eating
  • 17% of those aged 15–70 claim to eat a predominantly plant-based diet
  • half (55%) of those who had moved toward more plant-based eating said they were committed to making it a permanent change
  • 22% said that they plan for the change to be a permanent one

Mr Walton said younger consumers (Gen X and Millennials) are driving this trend, although not necessarily labeling themselves as vegans or vegetarians.

A trend toward declining consumption of meat-based products began showing up in the HealthFocus research database nearly a decade ago, Mr Walton said.

“We saw this emerging,” he said. “We saw [consumers’] desire for more fruits and vegetables in their diet.”

Mr Walton said the focus on plant-based eating was driven by three factors: long-term health, daily health, and social reasons (including animal treatment and concerns about the environment).

However, despite consumers’ growing interest in adding more plant-based fare to their diets, Mr Walton does not see it as completely undermining interest in animal-based protein.

“I don’t believe that it is meat versus plant,” he said. “That is not what is driving this revolution in plant-based eating. Animal protein is not without key benefits.”

He said there are barriers to increased plant-based eating, which include taste, nutritional sufficiency, convenience, cost, availability, and uncertainty about food preparation.

“Some of these issues may be perceived barriers,” he said. “Some are real. But I think they can all be overcome.”

Also speaking at the conference Penny Kris-Etherton of Pennsylvania State University outlined some benefits of a plant-based diet including weight management and a reduction in breast cancer risk and other benefits:

  • vegetable protein intake is associated with a 34% reduction in risk of fatal ischemic heart disease
  • higher vegetable protein and lower carbohydrate intake are linked to a 20% reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality
  • lower-carbohydrate, higher-vegetable diet is linked to a 10% reduction in the risk of diabetes.

She challenged product developers to formulate a broader array of products that help consumers add more plant protein to their diets while avoiding nutrients of concern such as sodium, fat, and added sugars.

From a food manufacturing perspective, scientist Austin Lowder of DuPont Nutrition & Health encouraged product developers to come up with unique plant-based formulations that don’t attempt to duplicate animal protein products but instead offer something that is truly new and different.

  • Based on an article by Mary Ellen Kuhn, edited by Greta Puls

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