Plant-Based Diet Challenges

November 27, 2012 in Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Quite a few Americans are getting the message that a plant-based diet holds promise for improving both our health and the environment. But like any change there are always some challenges. In this post I discuss challenges to individuals who want to change their eating habits, and challenges to those good-citizen food processors who are trying to provide healthy products with few bad environmental side effects.

Challenges for Individuals

The challenges for the individual involve how to do it – that is, how to move toward more plant foods and away from some of the animal-based menus. It usually begins with the individual learning about what’s possible for him/her/or their family. If it’s going to be a lifestyle change that endures, it will most likely be a gradual learning process. It may begin by identifying foods that we already enjoy. We may discover that one of the easiest changes is just to double up on the serving size of salads and vegetables and cut the animal protein down to a very small serving. One easy way of doing that is to begin to make stir-fries and vegetable-based casseroles.

Another way of moving toward more plant-based menus is by increasing the use of products that presently only infrequently grace our tables. I’m thinking of the use of tofu and other beans, or the processed meat analog products (for example, veggie burgers). Being creative does not hurt in this journey.

Challenges for the Food Processors

A couple of interesting food processor stories have come to my attention recently. Because plant-based diets are generally much more environmentally friendly than diets with lots of animal protein, we expect that meat analogues to follow the same eco-friendly route. But in fact, the fractionation process used to separate soy or wheat, into protein, oils and fiber, is often highly energy intensive. The food processors with the help of research professors have discovered that “Due to the inefficiencies in the process to make meat alternatives, we lose completely the environmental benefits.” So the food processors are going back to the drawing board and considering if only doing partial fractionation would save energy. One of the side effects would be more fiber in the products. Reducing processing steps sounds like a win-win to me.

Meanwhile, if you’re an individual trying to eat a diet higher in plant proteins, search the Internet for recipes using lentils, beans, tofu, wheat berries, nuts and quinoa. Consider trying to get some of your protein a little closer to nature; especially until better methods for making the analogues are developed.

The second, interesting food processor story comes to us from National Public Radio (NPR); Why Greek Yogurt Makers Want Whey To Go Away. It’s not really a story of non-animal protein sources, because Greek yogurt is, of course, an animal protein, but it is frequently served with plant-based foods to supply protein (not too mention flavor, texture). The problem, it seems, is that during the production of Greek yogurt a whole lot of whey is being produced. The funny crossover is that the same research professors in the meat analogue story are also working on finding ways to use whey. Because so much of the protein stays in the yogurt in the Greek method of making yogurt, and the whey doesn’t have as much protein, a lot of excess whey is produced. Unlike whey produced in making cheese, it is protein deficient, full of sugars, and acidic. The processors are paying about $300 for each 6000-gallon tank that is hauled away to use for fertilizer or fuel. Yes, it would be cheaper to just dump it in a river; but that would be an environmental crime. All the lactose in the whey would cause a bloom of sugar-eating bacteria; leaving little or no oxygen in the river and thus, killing fish in the river. Yikes!  We’ve been there before. So the food scientists are working to make an economically attractive solution. It doesn’t seem that it will be long before they’ve come up with a resolution. Historically, people have used it for dog food or fertilizer. We’ll just have to wait and see what they come up with next. One great method that is working at one Greek yogurt plant is to “digest” the whey using bacteria that love to gobble it up and produce methane gas as a by-product. Then they burn the gas to turn generators that supply the power the yogurt plant needs. It doesn’t fully break even but is more cost-effective than the alternatives.

We’re Americans after all; we’re not going to give up easily. It may take us, both as individuals and as good-citizen food processors, some time and plenty of effort to make a transition to a diet greater in plants. But ultimately, we may discover that the effort was well worth the resulting health and environmental benefits.