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Why More People Are Eating Plant-Based Protein During COVID-19

  • New surveys show that more people are gravitating to plant-based sources of protein during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Meat shortages in some areas, environmental concerns, and a desire to eat a healthier diet are among the top reasons people cited for their increased interest in plant-based foods.
  • Nutritionists say plant-based meat patties, as well as common snacks like tofu, hummus, and almonds are great options for getting the daily protein you need.

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, everyone in the United States and around the globe has had to come to terms with various changes in daily life. Some changes have involved shifting perceptions around food.

Changes in the food supply, shortages of items on grocery store shelves, and the closure of local restaurants have forced people to approach what they consume differently, and when and where they eat it.

One trend that seems to be taking shape during the outbreak is an embrace of plant-based meat substitutes.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation released two recent surveys on how we’re approaching our food consumption — one, an updated look at food safety and eating behaviors in the wake of COVID-19, and the other, an overview of plant alternatives to meat.

They found an uptick in interest in plant-based protein consumption.

Why the increased interest in plant-based protein?

The first survey, which came from 1,000 interviews with U.S. adults from May 7 to May 12, shows that about half of Americans are eating the same amount of most kinds of protein since COVID-19 started.

About a quarter said they’re eating more protein from plant sources since the outbreak hit, while around 31 percent said they would never eat plant alternatives to meat.

The second survey resulted from interviews with 1,000 adults from March 10 to March 11.

Some key findings? About 4 in 10 respondents said they felt a burger made from plant materials would be healthier than a traditional ground beef burger.

When looking at blinded nutrition facts labels, more thought the plant-based alternative would be the healthier choice.

Zeroing more closely on this, for those who felt the plant alternative would be healthier, the number of vitamins and minerals and the amount of specific vitamins and minerals listed on the label contributed to their opinion.

When asked what he thinks accounts for an increased interest in plant-based meat alternatives right now, Kris Sollid, RD, IFIC’s senior director of nutrition communications, said “Increased consumption of any single product during times like these is difficult to understand.”

“There are likely many factors involved, including some areas of the country experiencing shortages of certain items in grocery stores earlier in the pandemic,” he told Healthline.

“In our survey, 40 percent of people indicated that they are paying more attention to the ability to find products they usually purchase, and 38 percent are paying more attention to the amount of money they have to spend on groceries,” Sollid said.

Registered dietitian Amber Pankonin, MS, LMNT, said that she believes it’s a mix of meat shortages as well as people aiming to improve their overall health.

Based in Nebraska, Pankonin said she didn’t witness the meat shortages other parts of the country experienced, even with some spikes in cases at local meat packing facilities. She said, in other places, this might not have been the case.

“Another theory is that folks were trying to use quarantine as a way to get healthier and improve their nutrition, so I can see why some might have been trying to experiment with plant-based options,” Pankonin told Healthline. “I don’t think plant-based convenience products are cheaper, but that might depend on where you live.”

Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, said that while she would like to believe the increased interest in plant-based protein is tied to “open-mindedness,” the realist in her “thinks it is likely more related to access and availability of meat options.”

“I suppose that from an optimistic point of view, people are at home more, maybe have been cooking more, and so it is possible they have become more open-minded to trying out new flavors that are also healthier for them,” Hunnes told Healthline.

The health benefits of plant-based meat substitutes

​Hunnes said that the nutritional benefits of these kinds of foods include the presence of naturally occurring fibers, anti-inflammatory micronutrients, antioxidants, and lower calorie counts.

“It’s definitely healthier for you than meat which comes with proinflammatory fats, acrylamide that forms during the cooking process — which is carcinogenic — and a lot of unhealthy fats,” she added.

“The only nutrient at risk by eating plant-based proteins is vitamin B-12 which can be easily obtained through a vitamin supplement, nutritional yeast, or fortified foods,” Hunnes explained.

Sollid wanted to stress that “not every plant protein item is the same nutritionally.” This is why it’s always important to read and compare nutrition labels on any product you’re considering for you or your family.

He added that ounce for ounce, you’ll find differences when you compare a burger made from plant ingredients and one from 100 percent ground beef.

“One is not necessarily healthier than the other,” Sollid said. “When it comes to protein choices between plants and animals, if you’re an omnivore, it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. Both can have a place in a healthy diet.”

He said the typical “plant burger” is usually slightly higher in calories than a beef counterpart. This could be the result of higher carbohydrate, fiber, or fat content.

Some brands might have more total fat and saturated fat than beef variations. He explained that fat is a crucial part of a balanced diet and the types of fat we consume are more important than the total amount we eat.

“Saturated fat from plant sources is not thought to have the same effect on health as saturated fat from animal products, but both plant burgers and beef burgers can be part of a diet that promotes good health,” he added.

Sollid said that plant burgers don’t contain cholesterol, but dietary cholesterol doesn’t play a major role in blood cholesterol. This means the cholesterol we get from food isn’t the driving force for the cholesterol concerns doctors generally worry over.

“Nutrition scientists have been hinting at this for quite some time, but it’s not something that the average consumer may be aware of,” he said. “Many factors affect blood cholesterol more than dietary cholesterol, such as physical activity, body weight, intake of saturated and trans fat, heredity, age, and sex.”

Additionally, he said plant products tend to have higher sodium levels to increase flavor. When looking at labels, he said to keep in mind the general guidance for sodium intake is less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) each day.

Fiber is something plant products have that animal products don’t naturally contain. Many plant burgers will have up to a few grams of fiber compared to zero in ground beef burgers. He added that guidance for fiber intake is 14 grams for every 1,000 calories you eat.

Sollid added that protein is usually about the same for both plant and meat burgers, but it will come from different sources.

“Prepared plant-based protein products like Beyond Meat or Impossible foods provide a convenient source of protein for those who are seeking meat alternatives,” Pankonin said.

“Animal-based protein does provide a good source of protein, B vitamins, and iron but I think with the right planning, you could switch to a plant-based diet and get all the nutrients you need,” she said.

“This might require the use of a supplement and the services of a registered dietitian, but I do think you could meet your nutritional needs,” she added.

Hunnes said she likes tofu, beans, edamame, soy milk, peanuts, almonds, lentils, whole grains, seitan, Beyond and Impossible Burgers, when asked for suggestions of go-to plant products.

Pankonin echoed that list saying beans, hummus, peanut butter, tofu, and nuts are all examples of plant-based protein foods that have “minimal processing.”

She also cited Impossible foods, Beyond Meat, and Morning Star Farms as brands that provide plant-based protein options — everything from sausages to nuggets.

“If you’re looking to get started, try purchasing the ground product and use it how you would normally use ground beef,” she explained. “For example, you could crumble and use in tacos, on top of pizza, or even in a casserole.”

Will this trend continue after COVID-19?

Pankonin and Hunnes work with different populations of people. From Pankonin’s perspective, she’s seen an increased number of questions from the people she works with regarding meat safety during COVID-19, how to make the most with their meat purchases, and where to even begin with plant-based alternatives.

“With plant-based products, I think many people are a little intimidated with how to cook or prepare them, so I’ve done quite a bit of coaching regarding preparation,” she said.

Hunnes, who works in a hospital, hasn’t noticed a change of heart necessarily given that their meals come from UCLA directly. She said they do offer a wide range of plant-based options, however, and she has sensed people in general are open to trying new things right now, in part due to meat shortages.

“It is hard to really say which came first, the chicken or the egg — the meat shortages or the desire to try more plant-based,” Hunnes added.

Will this open mindedness to plant-based protein persist? Pankonin thinks so.

“Even before COVID-19, I saw people starting to experiment with plant-based options because of environmental or sustainability concerns. And now because of COVID-19 and the news surrounding packing plants and treatment of employees, I think people might consider other alternatives or at least try purchasing meat from local farmers or consider direct farm-to-consumer models,” she said.

Hunnes said she hopes the trend will continue. She said we need it to continue for current environmental and health concerns gripping the world.

“But, sadly, I have a feeling that when the food supply is back where it was, eating habits will also likely move back to where they were as well, and meat consumption will go back as well,” she acknowledged.

“My biggest hope is that for those who are trying plant-based for the first time out of necessity, [they] will find it very enjoyable and healthier and will want to continue that way,” she said.

From his vantage point, Sollid said that every so often a new food trend captures everyone’s attention only to “fade once the novelty wears off.”

“Other times, food trends have more staying power. I don’t have a crystal ball, but my sense is that this newer generation of plant alternatives to animal meat have staying power, particularly when you consider perceptions that they are healthier for people and healthier for the planet,” he said.

“But only time will tell how research and opinions on these products evolve,” he added.

The bottom line

New surveys show that more people are gravitating to plant-based sources of protein during the pandemic. Why?

In general, the meat shortages we’ve been seeing the past few months, and environmental and general health concerns are driving some people to experiment with more plant-based foods.

Nutritionists and dietitians stress that you should always consult the food labels on what you’re eating. Make sure you’re still getting your needed daily intake of nutrients.

That being said, plant-based patties, as well as common snacks like tofu, hummus, and almonds, to name a few, are great options for getting the protein you need.

Generally, while food fads come and go, experts expect shifting perceptions around food safety and sustainability will see this increased interest in plant-based options continue.

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