The Plant-Based Protein Dilemma

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It's hard not to get behind the plant protein mission. But can we get behind the nutrition? Herein lies the plant-based protein dilemma.

In theory, I admire and fully support the plant-based protein mission: to get us eating less animal meat and more plants, which should be better for both our bodies and the planet. I have to question, though, whether the currently-celebrated plant protein options are truly better for our personal health. Or, are consumers finding themselves in a dilemma—conflicted between choosing what’s best for their personal health and what is best for the planet?

I ask the question because I most definitely find myself in this dilemma.

I want to love the plant protein burgers that look like meat, taste like meat and even “bleed” like meat. I get excited when I learn about the wave of plant-based seafood and fish products hitting the market. Plant protein powders pique my interest. I read the mission statements and am drawn in. I taste the products and know they are better than the alternatives of the past.

And then I read the ingredients statements…and am disappointed.

A good majority of these products just don’t meet my personal nutrition standards and I can’t in good conscience encourage others to eat them on a regular basis.

Too many of these products are made predominantly from refined ingredients, rather than whole. They contain too many refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, gums, and a host of other undesirable ingredients—the very same ingredients that the soy and seitan options of the past came under fire for.

What most concerns me is that some of these products come to market via foodservice so the end consumer often doesn’t have the opportunity to read the ingredients statement before making an informed choice. And even worse? Many of these companies don’t post their ingredients statements online, which is a huge red flag for two reasons. It’s a clear indication that the company is not proud of their ingredients. It shows their complete disrespect for your right to know what’s in the food you are seeking.

I applaud the food industry for making headway when it comes to better tasting, more sustainable plant-based protein foods, but are we making headway when it comes to better nutrition, or are we taking two steps back?

When will we learn our food science lesson? When new food products enter the marketplace, we set the precedent for how they will be produced far into the future. Manufacturing facilities are tailored to make these products in a certain way; ingredient supply chains become streamlined; and the food science behind these production processes becomes embedded so we can produce more efficiently and cost-effectively in the future.

Didn’t we learn our lesson from the fat-phobia decades, when we produced foods devoid of fat yet high in sugar and refined grains and starches? We’ve known for decades that these products actually harm our health, yet food systems are still in place to favor producing foods this way. We still haven’t completely undone these unhealthful food production practices.

I think we all know that plant-based protein is here to stay as it is a sustainability necessity. So, why aren’t we making an equally noble effort to put out more nutritious options?

I urge all plant protein food producers to take a step back and make sure you are building a supply chain that honors making food that is both good for personal health and the health of the planet. Please don’t put consumers in the position of having to choose between their personal health and the well-being of the planet. And please don’t create a food system that will make it harder for us to eat more healthfully.

Food scientists and biotechnologists alone can’t be creating “formulas.” Trained nutrition professionals need to be a part of that team, and each team member’s perspective needs to be included in the conversation and respected.

I love the plant-based protein mission. I do!

But there’s much room for improvement when it comes to nutrition.