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Plant-based Eating

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant – Pythagoreans*, vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, flexitarians, omnivores and other eaters of food are being encouraged to pursue a “plant-based diet” (I prefer eating to diet) for a greater portion of their diet. Marketers and other “experts” have been successful in promoting this new description for meaningful eating. The words “plant-based” are used, stand-alone, or to compliment “organic,” “natural,” “clean,” “free from,” “no GMOs,” “healthy” or other commonly used label, marketing and promotional claims for food products. Many consumers now purchase and/or replace some animal-based products with plant-based foods.

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant

Pythagoreans*, vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, flexitarians, omnivores and other eaters of food are being encouraged to pursue a “plant-based diet” (I prefer eating to diet) for a greater portion of their diet. Marketers and other “experts” have been successful in promoting this new description for meaningful eating. The words “plant-based” are used, stand-alone, or to compliment “organic,” “natural,” “clean,” “free from,” “no GMOs,” “healthy” or other commonly used label, marketing and promotional claims for food products. Many consumers now purchase and/or replace some animal-based products with plant-based foods.

To follow a true plant-based diet, only plant foods are consumed, and animal-based foods are never eaten. Eat mostly plant foods might be more typical. Animal foods includes meat, bone, eggs, milk, butter, gelatin, etc. The plant-food portion is focused on eating the whole food or a “minimally processed” version. Plant foods include fruits, vegetables, tubers, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, seaweed, legumes, grains, mushrooms, yeast, etc.

Examples of minimally processed plant foods are guacamole, hummus, salsa, peanut butter, oatmeal and vegetable broth. Many condiments, like mustard, soy sauce, hot sauce and vinegars are generally accepted. Corn tortillas, whole-wheat bread and pasta, and brown rice noodles are slightly more processed, but generally acceptable foods. Plant-based eating is starting to sound better when a little processing is added.

To feed the expected 10 billion population of the planet by 2050, something will have to change. The something includes a 50 percent reduction in red meat, sugar and refined grains with the reduction replaced with plant-based foods, according to the article “Food in the Anthropocene: EAT-Lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” published in The Lancet in January 2019. The report has stirred up a lot of comments and feedback from various meat and other interest groups. It also has challenged the “naysayers,” the “yeasayers” as well as the “regulators” to examine future food choices and trends.

The World Economic Forum also issued a report about the same time detailing the need to increase the availability for increased consumption of plant-based protein to improve human health and environmental sustainability. The report suggests animal-based and plant-based protein can coexist and complement each other as plant-based protein is ramped up. Synergies can exist between the animal and plant-based groups, and this is currently taking place.

The first dietary guidelines in the U.S. were issued in 1977 as a result of “The McGovern Report.” Recommendations called for decreased salt, fat and sugar consumption. Meat and other animal products were named as dietary foods that Americans needed to reduce due to rise in chronic diseases. The vested interest groups representing meat, milk, eggs, salt, sugar, etc. got bent-out-of-shape and recommended the dietary goals be withdrawn and reformulated to have the endorsement of the food industry. The sky is falling. This sounds like the same dialog we are having 40 years later.

“My plate” replaced the USDA food pyramid in 2011 after being used for 19 years in various forms. The plate was divided into sections recommending eating approximately 30 percent grains, 10 percent fruits, 20 percent protein and 40 percent vegetables. Dairy interests were able to lobby to include a side dish of dairy. Additional recommendations were to “make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” “Make at least half your grains whole” and “vary your protein choices.”

In 2015, the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended a more sustainable, plant-centered American diet. “The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than the current U.S diet.” The food and agricultural industry reacted by saying “sustainability” is not the mandate of the USDA and the part about environmental sustainability was stripped away. The sky is still falling.

Today, there is a whole new batch of interest groups, including consumers, that represent the plant-based side and help to prop up the falling sky. There is an increased focus and appearance of plant-based food products throughout the food system. Startup, small and large companies are bringing new plant-based product to market. One place this shift to plant-based products stands out is the dairy section of food stores.

Dairy-based milk is being challenged by plant-based alternatives as dairy milk sales decrease. Milk could eventually become – “milk – the udder white drink.” Dairy case facings for specialty milk and plant-based products continue to grow. One thing that stands out for the non-dairy products is their use of unique packaging and label graphics. Traditional milk has a more “generic” look.

On a recent store visit to purchase a half gallon of traditional 2% milk. I left with a half-gallon of traditional 2% milk as well as a quart of “Milked Oats.” This purchase put me in the 44 percent of milk consuming Americans that have purchased dairy and plant-based milk in the past year” (1918 survey by Dairy Management Inc). The oat product claims to give the consumer the direct benefit of “20 grams of whole grain” per glass, while the dairy-based product gives the whole grain benefit to the cow.

According to the USDA, Americans consume 42 percent less milk than they did in 1970. Also, nondairy-beverage sales have grown by 61 percent since 2012, and sales were up 9 percent last year (Plant-based Food association). Thus, it is not surprising that SKUs are being realigned in the dairy case.

Non-dairy milk alternatives, I have noted, include; Soy, Rice, Coconut, Oat, Pea, Walnut, Almond, Cashew, Hazelnut, Hemp and Flax. I have not tried them all, but the “milked oats” was quite edible. A complete switch to plant-based milk products would not have a big impact on my life, if I had a reason or requirement to make the change.

Plant-based milks are not new to the 21stcentury. A December 2018 article in Food Technologynoted “the word milk has been used since around 1200 AD to refer to plant juices.” Coconut milk is probably the earliest non-dairy milk. Soy milk was used in Chinese cooking in the 14thcentury but was not used as a drink until much later. Almond milk also has a long history of uses dating back to the 13thcentury. Almond milk is now the best-selling plant-based milk. Oat milk moving up rapidly.

“I can’t eat meatless – it’s too expensive. One must have game fish, Geneva trout, Rhine carp, first fruits and vegetables of the season.” –– French peasant 1872

Due to the success of plant-based milks and decreasing sales of dairy milk, the use of the term “milk” for plant-based products is being challenged. When sales of a product decrease, the search begins to find excuses to explain the reasons why. The first is the plant-based products are taking advantage of the good name “milk” or “milking” the use of the name “milk.” The second is the alternative milk must be demonized as it is not the real stuff, and it would look good if labeled “imitation.” The FDA closed the comment period for “plant-based milk” labeling on Jan. 28, 2019. Recommendations have not been published.

There have been alternative products made from dairy milk. For example, a2 milk (protein more digestible), Fairlife milk (more protein and calcium), Smart Balance’s “Heart Right” (fat-free) milk. One milk (Mulo) has tried a unique bottle. None have set the category afire.

Perfect Day, a startup company, has a plan and process to make cow’s milk without the cow through microbial fermentation. The company signed an agreement to jointly develop and commercialize animal-free dairy proteins. Initially, the protein would be sold to the food industry as an ingredient.

People purchase alternative milk products for real and/or perceived dietary, ethical and environmental concerns. Consumers continue to purchase them because they provide specific features and because they like them. The various plant-based milks all have different nutritional and taste profiles as compared to conventional milk and to each other. The product one is accustomed to, or becomes accustomed to, is the base-point reference for continued purchase.

Plant-based foods are not immune to recalls. In 2018, one brand of almond milk was recalled due to potential contamination with dairy milk. This is a concern for people with milk allergies and points out the importance for process separation.

Plant-based foods have been around ever since humans have been eating for survival or pleasure. The latest version is now “whole-food plant-based eating,” People have a choice to include zero to 100 percent plant-based foods in their diet. I spent years developing “meat-based” and other food products. Some products I would never purchase or eat except at a taste panel. However, there is a vast market for people that welcomed such products. The same is true today, be the products animal-based or plant-based. I support all new food choices including the “milked walnuts” residing in my refrigerator.

*Until the word vegetarianism was coined in the 1840s, vegetarians were referred to in English as Pythagoreans. The original Pythagoreans followed specific code of diet, clothing and behavior patterns defined by Pythagoras (570-495 BC). The code did not allow consumption and even touching of any bean product.