Nearly 25% of Americans reduced their meat intake in 2019, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Vegan, ovo-vegetarian, lactovegetarian, ovo-lactovegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan are terms used to differentiate types of plant-dominant diets and provide a basis for food marketers to more accurately identify and meet the needs of individuals who have made the commitment to decrease or eliminate meat, fish and poultry from their diets.
According to Michele Simon, founder and executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), plant-based foods have expanded from being a niche industry targeting vegetarians and vegans to a mainstream industry targeting everyone.
For many individuals, the motivation to consume more plant-based foods is dietary. Most of the vitamins and minerals, as well as other essential micronutrients we need, are naturally found in fruits, vegetables and grains. Traditional plant-based diets are also lower in fat than animal-based diets containing beef or pork, which are particularly high in saturated fat. In addition to the dietary advantages, plant-based foods are generally better for the environment and more sustainable than animal products. Therefore, they appeal to those concerned about climate change and animal welfare.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional motivation to consume more plant-based foods has suddenly come to the forefront—shortages of animal products. Food and supplement marketers are attentive to all these trends and are constantly developing plant-based products that can not only substitute for, but in some cases be better than, their animal-based counterparts.
Within the smaller functional food and dietary supplement segments of the food industry, ingredients derived from plants have long been a mainstay for their nutrient content. Now, however, they are entering areas where animal-derived ingredients have traditionally predominated. For example, most plant-based proteins are incomplete, meaning they do not contain all nine essential amino acids. Therefore, a variety of protein sources is encouraged for individuals consuming exclusively plant-based diets. A few, such as quinoa and soybean products like tofu and edamame, are complete proteins, so these sources are recommended for fulfilling at least part of the dietary protein needs. For individuals on flexitarian, pescatarian and ovo-vegetarian diets, complete protein sources abound. For strict vegans, supplementation of iron, calcium and vitamin B12 also might be required to maintain optimal health as these nutrients are needed by the body in amounts that are not always attainable through a vegan diet.
Vegans and individuals who do not eat fish also may need to supplement omega-3 fatty acids. The human body requires dietary consumption of one omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) and one omega-6 fatty acid (linoleic acid or LA) to meet the body’s needs as well as support metabolism of other longer chain fatty acids used in the body. Since metabolism of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the body uses many of the same cofactors and enzymes, their intake should be in a ratio (omega-3 to omega 6) of about 1:4 to 1:1 to maintain balance.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet contains a ratio up to 1:50 omega-3 to omega-6 due to high consumption of processed and fried foods that are commonly prepared in high linoleic omega-6 oils. As a result, omega-3 supplementation has flourished. For vegans and many vegetarians, as well as those concerned about mercury content in fish or sustainability of marine life, this can be a challenge.
Most omega-3 supplements are derived from oily fish such as salmon, sardines or mackerel. These sources contain the end-product long-chain fatty acids of omega-3 metabolism, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3s are crucial for a multitude of the body’s processes, from cell membrane structure to cardiovascular support and brain function. Supplementation with ALA, or use of foods high in ALA in cooking, can help supply both EPA and DHA through the body’s own metabolism. However, the first step in the body’s metabolism of ALA (and LA as well) is diminished or inhibited altogether in a large group of individuals, leaving them without the benefits of all the longer chain omega fatty acids, including EPA and DHA as well as the beneficial omega-6, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Marketers of several plant-based omega fatty acid sources have stepped up to fill in this gap. Algal oil is a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA that helps supply these critical omega-3s for individuals wishing to avoid marine-sourced EPA and DHA. Another exceptional option is Ahiflower seed oil. Ahiflower is derived from the plant Buglossoides arvensis, a cultivated plant native to United Kingdom hedgerows. This oil supplies both essential fatty acids, ALA and LA, in a favorable ratio of almost 4:1, helping to compensate for high levels of LA in the diet. In addition, Ahiflower seed oil contains GLA and the critical omega-3, stearidonic acid (SDA), effectively bypassing the difficult first step in fatty acid metabolism. Not only does SDA exhibit beneficial attributes such as anti-inflammatory action, but it also converts to EPA much more efficiently than ALA from flaxseed or other plant-based omega-3 sources. (Lefort N et al. (2016) J Nutr Sci 5(2):1-12)
As the dietary habits of individuals around the world continue to evolve toward more plant-based foods, so will the industries that supply food and supplement choices to meet those needs. No doubt, plant-based options will continue to grow and expand to fulfill a variety of tastes and dietary needs, helping to build a more sustainable food supply across the globe.
Nena Dockery is a scientific and regulatory affairs manager at Stratum Nutrition. She began her career as a medical researcher at Kansas University Medical Center, but later pursued her master’s degree in human nutrition. With over 20 years’ experience in the nutritional supplement industry, she is knowledgeable in virtually all areas of dietary supplements, from physiological effects to the governing regulations.