‘Hidden hunger’ and the need for plant-based diets

There are several challenges for the consumer when it comes to increasing, adopting or expanding plant dietary choices. Therein lies an opportunity to assist consumers in their quest.

Jennifer Cooper, CSO

June 12, 2020

14 Min Read
‘Hidden hunger’ and the need for plant-based diets .jpg

Consumers are investigating the benefits of plant-based diets for a variety of reasons, including improved physical health, increased life span, and ethical and environmental concerns.1 There are many diets with an increased emphasis on nutrition from the plant kingdom.

Different types of plant-dominant diets might have 65% to100% of calories from plant sources, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, etc. Some diets, like the Mediterranean and Nordic diets, while not vegetarian, are focused on nutrient-dense plants and are not just better for our health but are also more ecologically friendly.2 The Harvard food pyramid famously includes fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and tofu as the base of its eating recommendations.3

Plant-based diets that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, legumes, nuts and spices have been linked to a reduction in the risk factors for developing chronic illnesses, including metabolic diseases.4-15

Additionally, the benefits of a plant-based diet on the microbiota have been well studied. Plant-based diets have significant positive effects on the diversity and stability of the microbiome and a healthier ratio of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes compared to diets rich in animal protein. Diets high in animal-derived products have been shown to foster a more inflammatory intestinal environment and additionally be prone to trigger body-wide inflammation, characteristic of metabolic disorders.16 Non-digestible carbohydrates and polyphenols found in plants have anti-pathogenic, anti-inflammatory and prebiotic effects, including increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Vegetarian and vegan diets are important to gastrointestinal and long-term health.17

Only 1 in 10 U.S. adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations, but most of them still get plenty of carbohydrates.18 Carbohydrates have become the new fat, vilified by many types of emerging dietary regimes. However, it may not be so much the amount of carbohydrate as the type of carbohydrate. The swapping of refined carbohydrates for the phytonutrient-rich, complex carbohydrates from plants has resulted in what researchers have coined “hidden hunger.”19

Hidden hunger is the presence of malnourishment in the midst of adequate, even over-consumption of, calories. These diets fail to provide sufficient levels of important phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals. In this case, our stomachs may be full, but our cells are starving for the critical nutrition to carry out essential functions that protect us from chronic disease, support healthy brain function and modulate metabolic health. The U.S. population has been described as “well-fed, but not well-nourished,” and indeed the prevalence of this type of “hunger” is intertwined with the of the fact that there are now more people on the planet who are overweight than those who are underfed and that the leading causes of death in first world countries are those we classify as “lifestyle” diseases.20,21

There are several challenges for the consumer when it comes to increasing, adopting or expanding plant dietary choices. Therein lies an opportunity to assist consumers in their quest to get more nutrition through plant-based products, sub-segmented based upon their goals. Some of the reasons why people may choose plant-based diets include:


More people are gravitating to plant-derived foods over animal-based food production systems due to ecological and environmental concerns. Plant food production is less resource intensive and environmentally destructive, including decreased greenhouse gas emissions, reduced water usage and a lower nitrogen footprint.1, 22-33 For instance, vegan and ovolactovegetarian diets compared with common omnivore diets may reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50% and 35%, respectively. Food production from farming, processing, storage and distribution accounts for 70% of all freshwater usage and, moreover, it is a significant contributor to water and air pollution. The increasing demand for food production drives 80% of the world’s deforestation, furthering loss of biodiversity.34, 35 It turns out our planet’s health is closely aligned with our own health.36

Longevity/healthy lifestyle

Many consumers are looking to plant-based diets to prevent future illnesses, modulate current health concerns, slow the aging process, reduce inflammation and increase longevity. While the components (vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyphenols, omega fatty acids and others) of plant nutrition have been individually studied, the most compelling research is on total dietary patterns that reflect a lifestyle commitment to eating plant-dominant diets.4 A great deal of emerging research is validating the idea that our diet may be one of the most significant contributors to either wellness or disease. The good news is that, unlike many factors in our life, dietary choices are something that are often within our control. Adherence to plant-forward diets like the Mediterranean diet or others rich in fiber and polyphenols may protect telomere length.37 Plant-based diets also confer beneficial and protective benefits, reducing the risk factors of a number of cardiometabolic diseases, including positively influencing blood pressure, lipid metabolism and blood sugar levels.5-15, 38 Studies show many plant-based nutrients also enhance neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity and neuronal survival by reducing oxidative stress and neuroinflammation.39


It was just a few years ago that most athletes believed animal protein was the only way to meet their performance goals, including increasing lean muscle mass, reducing body fat, maximizing exercise recovery and capacity.1, 3 Now, athletes are considering all kinds of possible plant-based diets, from partial exclusions like lacto/ ovo / pesca vegetarians to total veganism. More clinical work is substantiating the health benefits of plant-based protein sources and other plant-focused diets. Rather than being considered inferior, the higher intake of carbohydrate- and polyphenol-rich diets may even exert favorable effects on exercise capacity and exercise-induced oxidative stress.40-46 Many of the newer studies do not show an advantage for animal-based diets over plant-focused diets for most physical endeavors.1

Weight management

In addition to keto and high protein diets, there are several plant-based, alternative diets that are promoted for weight management. In clinical studies, vegetarian diets appear to have significant benefits on weight reduction compared to non-vegetarian diets. A meta-analysis of controlled trials of five different plant-based diets showed that weight loss or BMI was most favorable for those with the greatest adherence to plant-based diet.47, 48

Formulating for the plant-based lifestyle

Regardless of what goal brings the consumer to consider a greater emphasis on plants in their diet, formulating to meet these goals should consider the following:

  • Ethics matter. Consumers value transparency, clean labels, ethical sourcing, organic and non-GMO growing practices and traceability.

  • Add diversity to plant-based formulas. Variety is an important part of a healthy, plant-dominant diet. This is especially important for diets that are solely plant-derived to achieve complete protein. Ways to improve nutritional value of protein sources include fortifying plant-based proteins with specific essential amino acids and blending several plant-protein sources. The elimination of all animal products without a well-balanced plan for nutritional diversity can result in dietary deficiencies. Missing micronutrients that may need special attention are B-12, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and occasionally iron and zinc.49

  • Whole, fresh food is the ideal, but it can be challenging to always have easy access to healthy options or to get the diversity required to have an optimal outcome. For optimal health, we need to get at least 10 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables per day, with the emphasis on vegetables. It is not surprising that consumers are looking for convenient options to fill in the gaps and ameliorate certain nutritional challenges.

  • Adhere to the “better for you” standard. The consumer shopping in this category is trying to trade up. The answer to “hidden hunger” is found in the plant kingdom. Products that accentuate or elevate the inherent nutritional value, instead of diminishing it, will be most successful.

  • Keep an eye out for new science on phytonutrients. Take advantage of the opportunity to co-formulate with the consumer’s condition specific concerns in mind. Many branded ingredients have invested in clinical trials on phytoactive compounds from plants for everything from brain health to immunity.

  • Invest in great flavor profiles. There are significant improvements in flavor system technology that have raised the organoleptic standard for new plant-based products. Many of the emerging culinary flavors are a great fit with the unique, inherent flavor notes found in many plant-derived ingredients.

  • Do your homework on toxicology. Plants contain thousands of compounds, and not all of them are healthful. Plant-based diets may contain certain anti-nutritive factors, like tannins, phytates, glucosinolates, trypsin inhibitors, hemagglutinins and gossypol. Most of these can be reduced through processing and extraction techniques.1, 50

The science behind plant-based diets is accelerating, consumer interest is growing, and product development technology is evolving. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to continue to nurture and direct the trajectory of the category. There are both strong ecological and health motivations for people to shift from animal- to plant-centric diets.

Jennifer Cooper has spent over 25 years in consumer health care and is currently the chief scientific officer at Savant Science. She has held senior R&D and quality positions in OTC and supplement companies in the US and EU. Cooper has directed the development of supplements, over-the-counter drugs, homeopathics, functional foods, traditional herbal medicines, medical devices and dermocosmetics. She has developed and brought to market over 300 new products in more than 20 different countries.


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About the Author(s)

Jennifer Cooper

CSO, Savant Science

Jennifer Cooper has spent over 25 years in consumer health care and is currently the chief scientific officer at Savant Science. She has held senior R&D and quality positions in OTC and supplement companies in the US and EU. Jennifer has directed the development of supplements, over-the-counter drugs, homeopathics, functional foods, traditional herbal medicines, medical devices and dermocosmetics. She has developed and brought to market over 300 new products in more than 20 different countries.

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