Whether for health reasons or concerns about the environment, eating less or no meat is becoming more popular around the globe. But as a new WHO/Europe factsheet, “Plant-based diets and their impact on health, sustainability and the environment”, points out, some plant-based meat and dairy substitutes may not be better for people’s health.
Many of these plant-based substitutes, also known as analogues, can be defined as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which means they have a high energy density and tend to be high in sodium, saturated fat and free sugars, and lacking in dietary fibre and in vitamins and minerals found in unprocessed foods (including animal-based foods) and minimally processed plant-based foods.
“The aspiration for healthier living and a healthier environment is changing people’s diets across the WHO European Region – and that is wonderful,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, “but we need to remember that plant-based diets can be very different from one another and should not automatically be considered healthy.”
Dr Afton Halloran, author of the new publication, adds, “Today, when the idea of healthy diets has become commercialized, we need to pay more attention to foods. When we eat plain fruits and vegetables, we can be sure that they are good for our health. But when we buy ready-made foods that are marketed as healthy, we need to pay more attention to what they are made of.”
Plant-based diets low in salt, saturated fats and sugars offer protection against premature mortality. Healthy diets are an important way to prevent and control noncommunicable diseases, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
Health risks of meat analogues
Research has shown that frequent consumption of UPFs can lead to negative health impacts, including overweight, obesity and cardiometabolic risks; cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
The situation is worrying as consumers are led to believe that products like plant-based UPFs are healthy when, in reality, they are not.
Lack of knowledge for producers and consumers
Clearly, in this context, there is a need for a well-established knowledge base to build strong, effective policy to guide industry and consumers.
“Major blind spots remain when it comes to the nutritional composition of these products, and how they contribute to dietary quality and diversity in the WHO European Region. This lack of information prevents governments from forming effective policy guidance, with potential consequences for population health,” said Dr Wickramasinghe.
Healthy plant-based diets: what countries can do
Recommending a shift towards plant-based diets or reduced consumption of meat and dairy is not enough to improve planetary and public health. To assist policy-makers with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines, food policy and general health advice, a clear and coherent evidence-based message must be delivered.
To create the required knowledge base, WHO/Europe recommends:
- carrying out studies based on real-world dietary patterns on which to build strong, effective policies in the Member States to guide industry and consumers;
- when recommending a shift towards a plant-based diet, providing consistent, explicit and culturally appropriate information about what kinds of foods can replace meat and dairy – with whole foods or minimally processed foods as a priority;
- comparing meat and dairy substitutes to their animal-source equivalents when conducting analyses of nutritional content;
- developing reformulation targets that not only cover meat and dairy but also their substitutes; and
- developing and improving databases to ensure that there are clear and transparent mechanisms to monitor the food supply and industry.