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Plant-Based Eating Takes Center Plate

Rachel Cheatham discusses key takeaways of the most recent dietary guidelines for Americans.

Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D.

September 15, 2015

6 Min Read
Plant-Based Eating Takes Center Plate

Clocking in at 571 pages, the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee delivered the most current nutrition and health science presented in a systematized and graded format last February. If you had any doubt about the extent of dialogue and scrutiny around this latest round of dietary guidance, just take a quick read of the 30,000-plus comments that have poured in online.

By the end of 2015, the report findings will become the basis for the more consumer-friendly version, known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015, to be released jointly by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA. While the exact language that will appear remains unknown, key takeaways are rather clear.

Dietary Patterns

It’s been argued that “nutritionism," defined as a reductionist approach that zones in on the nutrient level of the eating equation, has taken focus away from the actual foods and beverages that constitute a healthy dietary pattern. People eat foods and drink beverages after all, not nutrients.

To this end, the scientific report spells out that “a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts; moderate in alcohol; lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains." A basic translation of this guidance is simply to eat more plant-based foods. The report also outlines three distinct patterns all prefaced by the adjective “healthy" to include a U.S. style, Mediterranean style and vegetarian.

It turns out this shift away from animal foods toward plants is already well underway by consumers. While only 2 to 8 percent of Americans are vegetarians, more than one-third eat vegetarian meals a “significant" amount of the time—that is, 39 percent of women and 32 percent of men are eating a vegetarian meal at least once a week, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group’s 2015 national survey. Mainstream consumers aren’t giving up on meat altogether, but they are actively shifting away from meat and dairy to non-animal foods.

The uptick in plant-based eating is consistent with further guidance from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) stating “vegetables and fruit are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes;" this means regardless of the precise dietary pattern, a diet heavy in vegetables and fruits is recommended. The guidance continued with the finding that “whole grains were identified slightly less consistently compared to vegetables and fruits, but were identified in every conclusion with moderate to strong evidence." With that said, three-quarters of MyPlate—vegetables, fruits, grains—fall squarely into the healthy plant category, leaving only the purple quadrant for protein up for debate.

Plant-based Protein

Nearly 80 percent of Americans meet their recommended protein intakes, based on NHANES data from 2009-2010. However, this new guidance includes up to 15 ounces of seafood per week for the “healthy med-style pattern," which is nearly double the amount recommended for the “healthy U.S. style pattern." The DGAC added farm-raised finfish (i.e., salmon and trout) are more sustainable than terrestrial animal production (i.e., beef and pork) in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land and water use.

Seafood aside, consumers have been and remain interested in protein. Data from NPD Group found 78 percent of consumers believe protein contributes to a “healthy diet" and more than half of adults want to consume more of it. Interestingly , what constitutes “high protein" in terms of an individual dietary is questionable. The acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for protein is 10 to 35 percent of total calories, which makes this macronutrient the most variable of the three (protein, fat and carbohydrate).

Certainly any products that offer relatively higher protein amounts from naturally-occurring plant-based sources will be right on trend. Pea protein is one such protein gaining ground as it is sourced from non-GMO material and considered non-allergenic. Microalgae, a microscopic form of algae formed through fermentation technology, and often listed as “algal flour" on food labels, is also making headway. Of course, soy protein remains the dominant plant-based protein for now, but it is plagued with nagging GMO concerns among some consumers. Other options include hemp protein, and for the more adventurous types, cricket flour. Both hemp and crickets offer complete proteins, meaning they have all of the essential amino acids.

Nutrients Still Matter

In the midst of patterns and plates, dietary guidance on shortfall nutrients is still important, as a lack of necessary nutrients can contribute to poor health outcomes. According to the DGAC, shortfall nutrients include vitamins A, C, D and E, folate, calcium, magnesium, fiber and potassium. For adolescent and premenopausal females, iron also is a shortfall nutrient. Of the shortfall nutrients, calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium were also classified as nutrients of public health concern because their under consumption has been scientifically linked to adverse health outcomes. The DGAC also found two nutrients—sodium and saturated fat—are overconsumed by the U.S. population, posing health risks.

For product developers, the key is to create products that offer shortfall nutrients in amounts consistent with unprocessed food sources, while at the same time limiting the amount of undesirable nutrients. The latter, of course, can be challenging because consumers’ palates are accustomed to higher amounts of salt, sugar and fat. Palates are changing, though, as consumers take on spicier notes through new chips and hummus entries, reconsider how sweet is sweet as they look to teas, seltzer waters and other non-sugary-sweetened beverages for hydration, and explore bitter, sharper tastes through green juicing and fermented foods and beverages.

Ultimately, it is important to recognize that elaborate ingredient listings with anything artificial, anything added that may extend shelf life but seems suspect, or anything found at inordinately high levels incongruent with levels found in the original food sources will be questioned. Those types of processed foods are just too far flung from the modern construct of “real food" for consumers. Instead, minimally processed convenience foods which offer recognizable plant-based ingredients, unique flavor combinations and sustainable packaging will win over the hearts, minds and mouths of consumers.

Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of the Foodscape Group LLC, a nutrition strategy advisory firm to brands and businesses looking to create and market healthier products. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @drcheatham and @foodscapegroup.

Looking for more information on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., will speak on “Meeting the New 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Naturally" as part of the Food Product Design track in the SupplySide West Education Program. Her session will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 6, from 9 to 9:50 a.m. at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Visit http://west.supplysideshow.com/edu-more.aspx for more information and to get registered.

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