Are Plant-based Foods Automatically Healthier?

By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

“Plant-based” is quite the popular term in the world of health and wellness, but does it automatically qualify a food as healthy? You’ve likely noticed that numerous fast food chains now offer plant-based patties in attempts to offer foods for all eating patterns. There has been a recent push in coffee shops towards nut beverages as an alternative to real milk, and “plant butters” are becoming the rage right now. There are numerous reasons as to why consumers make dietary decisions, but in terms of health, are plant-based products really better for you?

Most Americans would agree that achieving overall healthier eating habits, especially eating more fruits and vegetables, is an ongoing process. Unfortunately, a lot of consumer choices are based on perceptions or information from celebrities, blogs, social media, or hearsay. Before I proceed any further, please don’t think that I am attempting to wreck your grocery list or current habits. The goal of this article is to help you think a little deeper about how you use your food dollar while investing in your health.

Plant-based product number one: Almond “Milk.” When you compare a nut beverage to dairy milk, you will notice there is a stark difference between grams of protein. Nut beverages offer no natural nutrients, including protein, unless the beverage is fortified. You will also notice a difference in added sugars. Fruits, vegetables, and dairy are sources of natural sugars. Natural sugars are natural sweetness that does not have to be added. If comparing cow’s milk to an ‘original’ or flavored nut beverage, you will notice that sugar must be added to nut beverages whereas there is no added sugar in cow’s milk- unless you’re buying chocolate milk! If you are choosing nut beverages, beware of added sugar content. In terms of calories, if you compare whole milk to a nut beverage, there will certainly be more calories in the milk. There would also be much more saturated fat in whole milk; however, when you compare skim milk to a nut beverage, the calories are nearly identical. For identical calories, you’d get far more protein and natural nutrients in choosing real milk over a nut beverage. Numerous studies, including one published by the National Institutes of Health, have shown dairy intake linked to a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. From the time we were young, we were encouraged to drink milk for strong muscles, bones, and teeth thanks to calcium available in dairy. Sure, there are other sources of calcium you could eat or drink, but dairy milk and dairy foods have the highest amount of available calcium per serving. The American Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming 3 servings per day of low-fat dairy; nut beverages are not a part of the American Dietary Guidelines, so you could consider those to be “extra.”  In this case, low-fat dairy would be the healthier beverage.

Plant-based product number two: “Plant Butters.” In terms of fat, consumers likely find mixed information about fats. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat due to the correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. Saturated fat is found in animal foods, butter, lard, and even (plant-based) tropical oils such as coconut and palm kernel oil. Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and is found in fish, avocados, and liquid plant-based oils such as olive or canola oil. Unsaturated fats are healthy fats that have been proven to have positive health benefits. Butter made from real dairy is a saturated fat, which we should limit. Margarine is primarily made of vegetable oil which is an unsaturated fat, however, stick margarines contain hydrogenated oils which have been shown to have negative effects on cholesterol. You may remember years ago when you were told to switch from butter to margarine because of the saturated fat content of butter. You were later told to switch back to butter because of hydrogenated oils in some margarines. Now (to make the health information whiplash worse), there are plant-butters on the market. Are you ready for the truth? Plant-butters are overpriced containers of margarine. If you don’t believe me, read the ingredients. The first ingredient for both products will be some sort of soybean or canola oil. How can this be? Think about it- plant-butters come from plants. Soybeans and rapeseed, which is used to make canola oil, are plants. The food industry is not lying to you, but you have to wise about your purchasing decisions! If you are looking for a healthy fat to use in your cooking, I’d suggest using a liquid oil such as olive oil. If you absolutely love butter, reduce how much you use and make it a “sometimes” cooking fat. Liquid, unsaturated oils are heart-healthy oils that come from plants. In this case, the plant-based oil, such as olive oil or canola oil, would be the healthiest choice- even compared to plant-butters.

Plant-based product number three: Plant-based Proteins. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to dive too deep into this one. My quick answer for plant-based proteins versus animal proteins is, “it depends.” Let’s first compare a fast food Beyond Thickburger to an actual Thickburger. When comparing saturated fat and sodium, the original Thickburger comes out on top. There are 11g of saturated fat and 1,180mg of sodium in the beef Thickburger. There are 13g of saturated fat and 1,450 mg of sodium in the Beyond Thickburger. Neither product meets qualifications to be considered healthy, but in terms of saturated fat and sodium, the beef patty has less of both nutrients we should be limiting in our diet. To be fair, there is more fiber in the plant-based patty, but only by 2g. Now let’s compare a veggie stir-fry made at home incorporating meat versus a plant-based protein such as beans or chickpeas. In short, you’d get a good amount of protein with either choice, but you’d possible get more saturated fat with the meat; you’d get more fiber by using beans or chickpeas for protein. One thing is for sure, when choosing a plant-based protein such as nuts, seeds, beans, or legumes, you are getting lots of nutrients as well as fiber that you wouldn’t get from meat alone (assuming your plant-based protein isn’t highly processed such as an imitation meat patty). When you are choosing meat as a protein source, it is important to choose lean cuts to reduce saturated fat content. Plant-based or not, the focus of our choices should be foods low in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar while eating more fiber, nutrient-rich, less processed foods.

If you are interested in more healthy cooking and nutrition information, please visit johnston.ces.ncsu.edu and click the “Family and Consumer Sciences” tab. There will be a 4-week balanced eating series beginning on March 9th at 5:30p to teach you how to healthy meals on table quickly. Pre-registration is required.

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