On Nutrition

Are you intrigued by the idea of a plant-based diet? Concerned about food quality and safety? Results of two new surveys show you’re not alone — and you might also be mired in misinformation.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) does a Food and Health survey every year, and one big finding from the recently released 2019 survey was that more people are interested in plant-based diets, but aren’t sure what “plant-based” means. Nearly three in four participants were at least somewhat familiar with plant-based diets — not surprising, due to a handful of well-publicized studies that have come out in the last year — and one in two are interested in learning more. That’s good, because the way they define plant-based isn’t entirely accurate.

More than half of participants thought “plant-based” meant “vegan” or “vegetarian.” Vegan diets avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy, but vegetarian diets allow eggs and dairy. About 30% of respondents said that plant-based diets emphasize minimally processed foods that come from plants, with limited amounts of animal foods — something akin to a flexitarian diet. The truth is that plant-based eating can encompass vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets. Perhaps terms like “plant-forward” or “plant-centered” are better options.

Just as interest and awareness of plant-based eating is up, so is consumption of plant-based protein, with one in three participants saying they eat plant-based protein daily, and one in four saying they eat more plant protein than they did a year ago. While all plant foods contain small amounts of protein, major plant sources of protein include pulses (beans and lentils), soy foods (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame), nuts and seeds, and “faux meats.” Participant interest in the paleo and Whole 30 diets, both of which tend to be high in animal protein, is trending down significantly.

Barriers to plant-based eating

The survey revealed a number of additional misconceptions about plant-based eating. More than half of participants thought it would be hard to eat plant-based over the holidays or in restaurants. But the first thing I think of when it comes to plant-based eating over the holidays? “Hello, side dishes!” While meat or poultry — turkey, prime rib, ham, burgers on the grill — is often the center of holiday meals, from Easter to Independence Day to Thanksgiving to Christmas, most of the accompaniments are plant-based, although some are healthier than others. Green salads, coleslaw, three-bean salads, roasted Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and crudité platters are all nutrient-rich foods that can take center stage, leaving animal protein as an accompaniment, if desired.

As for restaurants, in Seattle we are blessed to have restaurants that do interesting things with vegetables and pulses, even if the restaurant doesn’t have a vegetarian or vegan focus. And remember: Even if you find yourself in a restaurant with no appealing plant-based options, no single meal makes or breaks your overall eating pattern.

One small detail of the survey I thought was super interesting was the “tastiness divide.” In other words, participants who identified as non-Hispanic white were far more likely to say it would be somewhat or even very difficult to find plant-based recipes that taste good than those who identified as Hispanic or African American. What this suggests is that being willing to explore other cuisines is a great way to boost intake of plant foods, as well as flavor.

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Health, sustainability and safety

Moving past the mental obstacles to a plant-based diet is important if you want to eat to achieve your desired health benefits. The top health concerns voiced by survey participants are heart and cardiovascular health, better energy, cancer prevention, brain health and digestive health. All of these are deeply compatible with a plant-based diet, because diets rich in whole and minimally processed plant foods are also rich in:

  • Antioxidants and phytochemicals that can help reduce chronic, low-level inflammation — a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and some forms of cancer.
  • Heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from foods like nuts and seeds, avocados and olive oil.
  • A variety of types of fiber, which is good for digestive health.

For nutritious food to be healthful, it also has to be safe, and both the IFIC survey and another recent consumer survey by NSF International, a public-health and safety organization that develops standards and certifications, revealed that Americans are concerned about food safety — not surprisingly — and most believe our food supply is safe. While the U.S. food supply is very safe, not all food we eat is grown or produced in this country. “It’s such a complex global food-supply chain, and food and safety standards can vary by country,” said Lisa Yakas, NSF’s senior certification project manager for consumer products. “That’s why it’s so important to have this third-party certification to verify safety and authenticity.”

When considering foods that are labeled non-GMO, organic or gluten-free, the majority of NSF survey participants were concerned about how and where the food was produced or grown, and whether it is certified by an independent certifier. Unfortunately, three in four respondents said there are so many food certifications — think organic, non-GMO, gluten-free — that they lose track of what they mean.

If you’re familiar with NSF, it’s probably because you saw their certification mark on a bottle of dietary supplements, but Quality Assurance International (QAI), part of NSF, is a third-party certifier for the USDA National Organic Program, as well as its Canadian and Mexican counterparts. NSF also offers specialty certifications for non-GMO, gluten-free, kosher, plant-based and Made with True Source Honey foods. Click on the “Consumer Resources” tab at nsf.org to learn more about these certifications, or visit qai-inc.com to find out what companies have been verified organic.