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Can plant-based diets help people live longer?

A new study from researchers in Japan suggests higher intake of plant-based proteins may contribute to long-term health and longevity.

The findings, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, also suggested substitution of plant protein for animal protein, mainly for red or processed meat protein, was associated with lower risk of total, cancer-related and cardiovascular disease-related mortality.

For the study, researchers followed nearly 71,000 middle-aged Japanese adults for an average of almost two decades. Compared to people who consumed the smallest amount of plant protein, participants who consumed the largest amount were 13% less likely to die during the study and 16% were less likely to die of CVD causes.

Overall, 12,381 people died including 5,055 fatalities from cancer; 3,025 from CVD; 1,528 from heart disease; and 1,198 from cerebrovascular disease. Individuals who replaced just 3% of red meat with plant protein were 34% less likely to die of any cause; 39% less likely to die of cancer; and 42% less likely to die of heart disease during the study. Those who replaced 4% of processed meat in their diet with plant protein were 46% less likely to die of any cause and 50% less likely to die of cancer.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how the amount or type of protein people consume might directly impact their longevity. The researchers noted that one limitation of their study is that participants’ diets were only assessed once, at the start of the study, and it’s possible their eating habits changed over time.

In April, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found individuals who consume a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fish have a 41% less risk of developing heart failure. The findings also suggested a diet rich in fats, fried foods, processed meat, and sugary drinks can raise the risk of heart failure by 73%. Heart failure affects about 5.7 million people in the United States and approximately 26 million people worldwide.

Consumer demand for clean labels and food and beverage products that align with values related to health and wellness, sustainability and eco-consciousness is pushing plant-based ingredients and products into the spotlight. And the numbers don’t lie. U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 11% in the past year, bringing the total plant-based market value to $4.5 billion, according to data released July 16 by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and The Good Food Institute. Further, Innova Market Insights recently found plant-based product claims increased by 62% globally between 2013 and 2017 with growth occurring across every food and beverage category.

Taste and nutrition as the two leading factors driving consumers to choose plant proteins. According to research from Datassential, protein quality and protein amount are both top considerations for 31% of consumers ordering plant-based proteins. Mintel found taste (52%) was the top reason for selecting plant proteins, far outranking concerns about health (39%), the environment (13%), animal rights (11%) and diet (10%).

According to Mintel, 46% of consumers believe plant-based proteins are healthier than their animal-based counterparts; however, robust debate over this point is currently raging among those who claim the huge popularity of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger doesn’t quite make the nutritional or “clean label” cut. (INSIDER and New Hope will be taking an in-depth look at these issues soon.)

We’ll take a deep dive into the plant-based sector during the “How to Win in the Booming Plant-based Nutrition Sector” workshop on Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 9 a.m., at SupplySide West in Las Vegas.

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