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Plant based diets: the impact (not always positive) on health and on environment

The World Health Organization study/Annex

Nowadays, more and more vegetable substitutes for dairy products and meats are present on the shelves of supermarkets and even the vegan diet is making its way through the habits of different consumers. However, these surrogates may not be healthy for humans or the environment, according to a new study. The World Health Organization has made public a research on the impact of diets consisting of plant substitutes, in which doubts are raised about the positive efficacy of these ultra-processed foods. These are products with a high energy density, a high sodium content, saturated fats and simple sugars. Conversely, they are poor in fiber, vitamins and essential minerals.

"Their nutritional value does not coincide with that of the natural animal foods they claim to replace", states the study. Furthermore, analyzes show that their long-term consumption can have negative impacts on human health. WHO suggests "not to put meat at the center of one's diet", limiting its consumption, but not to completely exclude it. In fact, this protein provides some micronutrients that humans cannot do without, such as iron, vitamin A and zinc.

WHO specified that: "despite the health benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods, not all plant-based diets are healthy". However, it is possible to follow a "healthy" vegan diet as long as the essential micronutrients such as vitamin D and vitamin B12 (which are mainly found in animal sources) are included in an alternative way. In the specific case of vitamin D, the alternative could also be adequate exposure to the sun. According to the Organization, it is important to introduce healthy, whole and minimally processed plant foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Study "points" to plant-based diets based on ultra-processed foods, such as imitations of sausages, nuggets and hamburgers or beverages such as almond and oat "milk", and plant-based "cheese" and "yogurt". These foods are formulations of substances derived from whole foods, such as starches, sugars, fats and protein isolates, and often contain flavors, dyes, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives to improve shelf life, palatability and visual appeal.

“Plant-based diets can be very different from each other and shouldn't automatically be considered healthy. The main blind spots remain when it comes to the nutritional composition of these surrogate products, and how they contribute to food quality and variety”, explained Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, head of the WHO European office for disease non-transmissible prevention and control. And he added: "this lack of information prevents governments from forming effective dietary guidelines, with potential negative consequences for the health of the population".

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EFA News - European Food Agency