Sustainable diets

Eating new plant-based foods can be good for the environment, your health and your economy

"The best thing you can do for the planet, your own health, and your wallet is to switch to a largely plant-based diet." Photo: Dan Gold via Unsplash.

Replacing animal-source foods with plant-based alternatives or whole foods decreases environmental impact, meets nutrition recommendations, and can be cost-competitive with the current average Swedish diet

Story highlights

  • The current average Swedish diet was compared to a range of dietary patterns that contain less animal-sourced foods
  • Plant-based alternatives and whole foods diets both demonstrate lowered environmental footprints, emphasizing the importance of reducing overall animal-sourced food consumption.
  • Shifting from animal products to plant-based alternatives or whole foods is equally effective in mitigating environmental impact while maintaining nutritional balance and cost competitiveness

Oat drinks, soybean burgers, and “fish sticks” made of wheat protein: Today, supermarket shelves are increasingly filled with plant-based products that try to imitate animal foods.

Despite that, most previous research that compares current diets with more plant-based dietary patterns (including vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian etc) assumes that those diets would consist of whole foods only. For example, replacing meat with beans and lentils. In reality, however, many consumers have been shown to prefer products that are similar in taste, convenience, and cultural values to animal products. This has opened up for the product development of so-called plant-based alternatives.

Now, for the first time, a research team from the Centre and University of Oxford, has looked at the environmental, nutritional and cost implications of diets where animal-source foods are replaced by their respective plant-based alternative such as dairy milk by oat drink, meaty hamburger patties with soy-based ones, etc. Their study, published in the academic journal Nature Communications shows that, in a Swedish context, more plant-based diets are better for the planet, good for your health, and cost about the same as what the average Swede pays for food today – even if they contain plant-based alternatives.

“The best thing you can do for the planet, your own health, and your wallet is to switch to a largely plant-based diet. If you find it easier to switch to plant-based alternatives that look and feel like meat, fish, or dairy, that’s okay,” says Anne Charlotte Bunge, lead author of the study and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.

The researchers also analyzed what happens if animal-sourced foods were swapped for plant-based whole foods. Anne Charlotte Bunge continues:

“Whole foods are a bit better in terms of environmental impact, but the main cut to the ecological footprint of your diet is made by reducing the consumption of animal foods.”

Scenario diets

In the study, the research team, including Centre researchers Rachel Mazac, Amanda Wood and Line Gordon, also found that a diet consisting of a variety of plant-based vegan alternative foods meets nutritional recommendations, at least in the case of Sweden.

The researchers designed six different scenario diets and compared their nutritional intake, environmental impacts, and retail prices to the current average diet of a person living in Sweden. These scenarios comprised vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets each based on either whole-food products or plant-based alternatives – all based on products that are currently sold in Swedish supermarkets.

Their analysis confirms that switching to plant-based diets lowered greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 per cent diet – regardless of whether it is whole foods or not.

Plant-based diets also need much less agricultural land than the current average diet.
Most scenarios saw a reduction in water usage, except two diets that included a lot of whole foods – as they contain plenty of fruit and vegetables which need a lot of water to grow. These two diets required similar amounts of water compared to the current average diet.

The study also shows that plant-based diets meet most of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. The researchers found that all scenario diets improved dietary intake of iron, fibre, folate, magnesium, polyunsaturated fats, and saturated fats. Dietary intake of protein and zinc was lower for all alternative diets, but still above recommendation. The vegan diet with plant-based alternatives also performed better than current diets when it comes to the intake of vitamin D and Calcium, but contains too much salt.

“In Sweden, it is mandatory to enrich certain foods with micronutrients such as vitamin D and calcium. Because of that, processed Swedish plant-based alternatives often have a nutritional content similar to the animal-based food they intend to replace. For example, oat drink has a similar calcium level as dairy milk,” explains Anne Charlotte Bunge.

Apart from the high salt levels in processed plant-based alternative foods, the bioavailability of nutrients is still a concern. Even if they’re readily available, nutrients can be more difficult to take up from plants, than from animal food sources.

Next generation

“We currently see a lot of work on developing a next generation of plant-based alternatives and there is reason to hope that these will be healthier and more sustainable than the current ones,” says Anne Charlotte Bunge.

For consumers in Sweden, switching to more plant-based diets is cost-competitive with the current average diet and would even be cheaper if consumers switch to whole foods, according to the study findings.

The authors emphasize the many environmental benefits and improvements to public health that go hand in hand with shifting to more plant-based diets.

“We shouldn’t get too stuck in discussions on whether plant-based alternatives or whole foods are better for the environment. The important point is that we need to reduce the amount of animal-based foods that we eat in Sweden today.

Different consumer groups have different preferences, and if that can be met with a diversity of alternatives, that’s only beneficial,” explains professor Line Gordon, co-author of the study and director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.

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Published: 2024-02-08

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