Plant-Based Brands Miss Big Opportunities to Bolster Consumer Health 🥗

The "food as medicine" craze continues, but most of the population still struggles to make truly healthy diet and lifestyle changes

Good Monday, fellow nerds! Usually I have something punny or witty to say about the weather here, but it’s the same old February in the Northeast, so I’ll just huddle in my perpetual blanket shawl while getting up on my weekly soapbox. 🥶🧊

This week, it’s back to my health coaching roots—and back to the roots of plant-based diets. 🌱 Historically attributed to Dr. T. Colin Campbell, the term “plant-based” was coined in 1980 to “emphasize that [his] work and ideas were coming totally from science and not any sort of ethical or philosophical consideration.”

In short, to separate a diet consisting of mostly whole, 100% plant foods from vegan lifestyles—which can be, from a dietary standpoint, just as bad for health as standard Western eating patterns—and point to scientific evidence as the core basis for favoring such a diet.

It’s the health benefits that we’re looking at today, as well as how to address consumers’ ongoing struggle to understand those benefits.

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Yes, Food Can Actually Be Medicine

A group of doctors in the UK have launched Plant-Based Health Online (PBHO)—a platform dedicated to helping people get healthier through lifestyle medicine.

The launch comes at a time when health is at the forefront of just about everyone’s minds. The COVID-19 pandemic has unavoidably highlighted the terrible problems with diet and lifestyle in modern society and has shined a spotlight on the gaping holes that have been slowly crippling the modern food system for decades. With hundreds of thousands of people dying from preventable lifestyle diseases every year, healthcare can no longer afford to continue operating under the current paradigm.

Plant-based doctors like John McDougall, Michael Greger, Neal Barnard, Dean Ornish, Michael Klapper, Pam Popper and countless others have been working to point people toward a whole food plant-based lifestyle for years. Although it has caught on in some niche communities, the idea of preventing and treating disease through diet and lifestyle modifications still lacks support from mainstream medicine.

The doctors at PBHO aim to change this by working alongside patients’ existing medical teams to apply science backed, evidence-based techniques for better health outcomes. Although the UK is the current target, it’s an idea that’s been long overdue in healthcare systems across developed nations.

Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

Diet is just one piece of the puzzle. The doctors are also providing guidance for:

  • Better sleep 😴

  • Healthy exercise 💪🏻

  • Stress management 🧘🏻‍♂️

  • Positive social relationships 🤝🏻

The idea that these factors, in combination with diet, can reduce disease impact needs to get more mainstream. Anxiety surrounding health, immunity and illness is growing—and little or no good information exists to guide the public to real solutions.

…But People Have Weird Ideas About What “Medicine” Means 💊

This leads consumers to reach for updated versions of the foods they already eat. Some of these functional foods can and do have some benefits, but their impact is likely to be minimal without simultaneous diet and lifestyle changes.

According to Food Dive, people who cite COVID-19 as a major source of stress are more likely to report they “maintained a healthy diet” as part of their stress reduction regimens during the pandemic. (Whether this is true or not is hard to tell, given the prevailing confusion as to what a healthy diet actually consists of. 🤷🏻‍♂️🥗)

The problem here is twofold:

1) Consumers are looking for “functional benefits“ from packaged products—but dumping some fiber or medicinal mushrooms into a candy bar does not a healthy snack make. 🍫

2) Companies interpret functional food choices as a new trend in consumer tastes and scramble to develop something appealing, resulting in an insane feedback loop. More products appear on shelves, creating more choice, which creates more confusion. The very companies consumers are looking to for help with their health wind up—perhaps inadvertently—contributing to the problem. 😵

The result? Instead of learning how to harness the power of functional ingredients as part of a diet centered around whole plant foods, consumers down more high-protein yogurt, vitamin water, energy drinks, CBD-infused snacks and just about anything promising better gut health or improved immunity.

Of course, all the blame can’t be laid on brands. Entrepreneurs go where they see opportunity, often driven by the desire to solve a problem they’ve experienced in their own lives or see in the lives of others. Where there are market gaps, innovation occurs.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Somehow, though, there needs to be a balance between product creation, profit and true contributions to consumer understanding. 💡

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Cheap Food & Beefy Confusion Muddle Consumer Choices 🥩

The meat industry is a long-time player in the confusion game, but some of their observations should give plant-based brands pause nonetheless. A report from the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board shows a rise—not a decline—in meat sales concurrent with last year’s rise in sales of plant-based proteins. This suggests the majority of consumers aren’t reducing meat intake in favor of alternative protein (or any kind of plant protein at all).

Who’s buying more plant protein? 🌿 The younger, more liberal-leaning crowd and those predominantly concerned with the environmental impacts of their food choices. Apparently, a large chunk of the rest of the population still thinks beef tastes better and is both more natural and more nutritious than alternative products.

And then there’s the issue of price. 💸💲

The “price parity” discussion has become a big issue in the plant-based community, but there’s a serious danger in entering the race to the bottom. Lower prices may draw more attention by creating accessibility for a larger number of consumers, but those consumers are used to the artificially low prices of meat, dairy and processed foods. Driving prices lower—including alt protein prices—runs the risk of contributing to the perception that food is a disposable commodity.

The intensive farming practices currently used to produce cheap food, food ingredients, animal feed and animal products in quantity are sapping soils of their biodiversity, leading to soil degradation and an ever-downward spiral in the nutrient content of foods grown in those soils. 🌾 These practices allow modern agriculture to produce and distribute more calories than ever before, but it’s not solving the problem of bad nutrition or the issue of food inequality.

In fact, it’s making everything worse.

Plant-Based Companies: Be a Light in the Midst of the Chaos

The solution is not necessarily to make alt protein cheaper (or, arguably, even to make alt protein, but that’s another conversation). Instead, plant-based companies could be doing something different—like partnering with organizations doing what PBHO is doing. 👩🏻‍⚕️👨🏻‍⚕️

Imagine a marriage between the current plant-based movement and whole-food, plant-based diets. A food landscape intrinsically connected to healthcare through partnerships designed to create healthier solutions while furthering consumer education.

Consumers, after all, want better health, but they have no idea how to get it and hold onto it for the long term. Many of them are stuck thinking they have to replace all the proteins with plant-based analogs, an idea both their personal tastes and their bank accounts balk at. Plant-based companies could take the initiative in showing people how to make a true shift to a plant-based diet, including the best ways to incorporate alternative protein products during and after the initial transition phase. 🍔🍗

Rather than playing into perceived trends and supporting the myth of cheap food, it’s time to start a real paradigm shift. Lowering barriers to entry can do more for the plant-based movement and for human health than fighting price wars or pouring functional benefits into processed foods.

Because, in the end, people want to feel better. And when they’re able to experience that for themselves by eating plants, that’s when change starts to happen.

If you enjoyed this issue of The Modern Health Nerd, check out the companion podcast for more insights from some of the most interesting and intelligent minds in the plant-based, food and fitness space.