Are plant-based foods the way forward?

February 26, 2021


Recently, there has been increased focus on the health implications of excess meat consumption, and the benefits of a plant-based diet. While there is evidence that reducing meat consumption in favor of a plant-based diet is beneficial for human health as well as the environment, the specifics are heavily contested, and as yet there is no definitive evidence on the optimal level of meat consumption or whether red meat is more damaging than white meat.

The overall ‘healthiness’ of a product cannot be boiled down to a single measure. Furthermore, the impact of specific micronutrients varies according to the health status of the individual consumer. This makes evaluating the health implications of ingesting a specific food subjective, and potentially contentious.

A diet high in salt, for instance, is understood to increase blood pressure, which is a significant contributor to cardiovascular disease. As a result, salt and sodium content is also at increased risk of regulation.

Given their high-salt content, this is the most material consideration when analyzing plant-based meat alternatives relative to traditional meat. The comparison is even worse versus plant-based foods such as lentils or tofu. However, when compared to a selected handful of other processed burger products, plant-based versions are actually not any higher in sodium.

The plant-based meat alternatives can also be far higher in saturated fat than other plant-based foods such as lentils, and even higher in saturated fat than animal meats. As with salt, the saturated fat content of plant-based meat alternatives is often similar to that of other processed food products.

There are significant risks of consumer preferences shifting towards healthier product options, as well as the likelihood of further regulation, which may increase operational costs. While the debate around the health impact of plant-based food products is more nuanced, it is clear that, from an environmental perspective, there are benefits from reducing the consumption of animal-based products, which is something consumers are increasingly aware of.

Rebecca White, responsible investment analyst, Newton Investment Management.

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