Late last year, McDonald’s introduced a plant-based burger in its joints across Canada as part of a six-month trial run. The fast food chain partnered with Beyond Meat, a producer of plant-based meat substitutes, to bring out the burger, which was called PLT (plant, lettuce, tomato). The trial run ended in April with no plans of adding the burger to the menu, but the move is being seen as a response to the increasing demand for healthy plant-based foods by consumers across the globe.
Not just McDonald’s, other fast food chains, too, are jumping on to the plant-based diet bandwagon. Burger King and KFC, in fact, launched their first plant-based burgers earlier this year. What has also given steam to the demand for plant-based protein and meat alternatives is the virus outbreak, which has brought to the fore the importance of a healthy, immunity-boosting diet. In the wake of the pandemic, in fact, meat consumption across the globe has come under heavy scrutiny, with animal rights activists, vegans and health experts raising questions on the unethical killing of animals.
Leading naturalist and conservation campaigner Jane Goodall says we need to reshape how we think about food because “our disrespect for farmed animals has created this situation where disease can spill over to infect human beings.” She advocates a plant-based diet and boycott of companies that fail to adopt sustainable farming techniques. “If we don’t do things differently, we’re finished,” warns Goodall, who believes intensive animal farming is connected to the pandemic. From consumers to leaders and industry chiefs, we need to, she says, “change our ways” and move from industrially-farmed products to more plant-based foods.
Recently, the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford in the UK said that a global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruits and vegetables could save up to eight million lives by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. The switch would also lead to healthcare-related savings and avoidance of climate damages worth $1.5 trillion. It’s no wonder then that plant-based diets are fast becoming the go-to choice for concerned consumers. Pune-based research firm MarketsandMarkets, in fact, suggests that the global plant-based meat market size is projected to grow from $3.6 billion in 2020 to $4.2 billion by 2021, recording a CAGR of 17.0% during the forecast period.
An upward trend
Some of the major factors driving the growth of the plant-based meat industry are an increasing demand for clean label products, rising awareness of consumers, the myriad health benefits of such a diet and the threat of animal-borne illnesses.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an autonomous body established under the ministry of health and family welfare, also recently released guidelines under the ambit of its Eat Right India movement. In light of this, the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), the country’s leading animal protection body, urged the FSSAI to promote plant-based food as an immunity builder. “Green foods are vital to improve immunity for all age groups and should be promoted by the FSSAI. It is also pertinent that slaughterhouses and meat shops follow the rules notified by the FSSAI under ‘food hygiene and safety guidelines for food businesses during Covid-19’ or they should be banned,” says Varda Mehrotra, executive director, FIAPO.
It’s easy to understand the FIAPO’s thrust on plant-based foods, as these come with a plethora of health benefits. These have an abundance of macro and micronutrients and antioxidants, which help in keeping cells strong and healthy to fight off viral infections. Plants also contain fibre that lowers cholesterol, stabilises sugar, improves bowel movement and helps improve gut health, thus positively affecting metabolism, mood and the immune system. “A diet of wholegrains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, with added vitamin B12, meets all the dietary needs. Legumes, such as chana dal, moong dal and chhole, are great sources of protein and can be combined with wholegrain roti, quinoa and brown rice along with a variety of vegetables and fruits,” says Mehrotra.
Nutrients such as vitamin C, E and carotenoids are also found in abundance in plant-based diets, enabling healthy cell functioning in the body and reducing inflammation. “Meat-based diets and dairy have macronutrients such as proteins and calcium, which can easily be obtained from plant-based nutrition. Proteins can be obtained from lentils and legumes, while green leafy vegetables such as broccoli are an excellent source of calcium,” says Babina NM, chief medical officer, Jindal Naturecure Institute, a modern naturopathy hospital in Bengaluru.
Experts say this kind of diet is important to stimulate the activities of certain immune cells, including T-cells. “Those who consume a plant-based diet tend to have a lower body mass index and lower rate of obesity, diabetes, type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” says gastroenterologist Praveen Jha, who works at the Regency Superspeciality Hospital in Lucknow. “I suggest increasing intake of foods packed with carotenoids like ginger, garlic, turmeric and carrots. The health benefits are dependent on the quality and nutritional adequacy of the diet… this means replacing refined, typically ‘white’, carbohydrates with wholegrains, avoiding sugary, sweetened drinks and confectionery, and focusing on good-quality plant-based protein and fats such as those found in nuts and seeds,” Jha adds.
The meat question
Dietician Neha Pathania, who works at Paras Hospital in Gurugram, says plant-based diets have antioxidants like vitamin C, found in all citrus fruits, vegetables and wholegrains. In comparison, meat-based diets don’t provide adequate fibre to improve the digestive system. It also doesn’t prevent constipation or improve colon health. “Flavonoids are the antioxidants that help in scavenging free radicals and reduce the risk of cancer. Beans, nuts and wholegrains are rich sources of flavonoids. A meat-based diet, on the other hand, increases the risk of colon cancer,” says Pathania.
Eating an increased quantity of red meat has higher chances of contracting colon cancer, confirms Gaurav Maheshwari, head and senior consultant, surgical gastroenterology, Paras Hospitals, Haryana. “A common thread among patients who suffer from constipation, bloating and gas is that they all take meat-based diets. The change to a plant-based diet has helped improve their condition without any medication,” he says.
When meat is grilled, barbecued or smoked at high temperatures, it releases fat that drips onto cooking surfaces. This produces toxic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic in nature. “The International Agency for Research on Cancer had in 2015 cautioned that the consumption of processed meat was classified as ‘carcinogenic to humans’. This carcinogenicity is likely to be generated during processing methods such as curing and smoking, or when meat is heated at high temperatures,” says Babina NM of Jindal Naturecure Institute. Plus, contamination of supplies with harmful bacteria, microorganisms or bacterial strains such as salmonella, clostridium, escherichia, streptomyces and pseudomonas can also spoil meat. “Meat and meat-based products have to be handled hygienically, but with commercial animal farming on the rise, animal products are loaded with antibiotics, hormones and a host of other toxins, which can make meat non-consumable,” she adds.
However, when switching to a plant-based diet, one needs to be careful. A 2017 study from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, found that eliminating meat doesn’t necessarily lead to a healthier diet if what’s left are unhealthy foods such as potatoes, fruit juices or sweets. But people who followed a plant-based diet, even if it included some animal foods, were less likely to die than those who followed a processed food diet. It’s clear that a healthy diet is a homogenous mix of vital nutrients to boost immunity and maintain a heart-healthy life.
Pros of plant-based diet
- Packed with protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins & minerals
- High in fibre and phytonutrients
- Lower rate of obesity, heart disease, diabetes
- Beneficial for weight loss
- Sustainable eating habits can reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Cons of meat-based diet
- Can cause diabetes, heart failure & stroke
- Leads to increased water usage, deforestation and greenhouse effect, causing global warming
- Meat cooked at high temperatures can produce toxic cancer-causing compounds
- Processed meats consumption can also lead to cancer