Wellness Wednesday: Plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean healthy

It’s important to look at the ingredient list before you pick up any plant-based manufactured food or drink

Packages of hamburger patties, made from the plant-based simulated meat product Beyond Meat, sit next to lean ground beef in the meat section of a grocery store. Postmedia file photo

Share Adjust Comment Print

With further restrictions imposed in Ontario this week, and consequently more time spent at home, this might be a good time to look at your eating habits and food choices.

Plant-based is the new buzzword in the food world, prompted by a growing preference for healthier and sustainable foods.

But not all plant-based foods are created equally. French fries are technically plant-based, but would you eat them every day? It seems like a silly question but looking at the predicted growth of the plant-based food industry, you have to wonder.

Plant-based anything is a multi-billion-dollar market and Bloomberg forecasts it will grow to a $162 billion industry over the next decade. It’s interesting to note that the companies leading the market growth are brands of plant-based meats and dairy. Many of these foods have become convenience items – available through drive-thru windows and just about any restaurant menu.

Consumers don’t seem to mind that a potential health consequence of consuming these foods, many ultra-processed, could have the opposite effect of what prompted them to chose plant-based in the first place.

I’ll be the first to admit – I am totally captivated by the plethora of plant-based options in the grocery store aisles these days. Did you know they have plant-based buffalo chicken wings?

A few months ago, in my never-ending attempt to get my kids to eat more vegetables, I was persuaded to pick up a box of a plant-based meat product that boasted vegetable ingredients and then compared it to an animal-based meat variety. Aside from the words I couldn’t pronounce on either box, I was astonished at the sodium content of the plant-based meat product – about double that of the regular version. Needless to say, if you’re looking for chicken tenders, whether poultry or plant-based, it’s best to make your own using whole ingredients. There are recipes galore online.

Dairy alternatives have outnumbered cow’s milk brands, too. Plant-based milks contain no lactose and may be better tolerated in some people. They also contain no cholesterol and have little saturated fat compared to regular dairy. However, the nutritional content varies and so does the ingredient list.

Some non-dairy alternatives include added oils, sweeteners, colourants and more calories than cow’s milk. It’s important to look at the ingredient list before you pick up any plant-based manufactured food or drink, just as you should for any food item before you throw it in your grocery cart.

The Government of Canada created new guidelines for the nutrition facts table and list of ingredients on food labels so that Canadian consumers can make better-informed decisions when it comes to nutrition. Food manufacturers were to have until Dec. 14, 2021, to make the changes to their labels; however, due to the pandemic, the deadline has been extended until the end of 2022.

The label will now include a footnote to help consumers interpret the percentage daily value. When reviewing a food label, 5 per cent or less is considered little while 15 per cent or more is a lot. So, when you see a food that contains 25 per cent sugar or sodium, you may want to search for an alternative. Or better yet, ask yourself: Could I make this on my own?

If you are making an attempt to eat healthier in 2022, do so prudently. Sure, eating a burger, plant-based or not, is OK every now and then. But does it provide you with nutrients? How is it supporting a healthy immune system?

The best plant-based foods are just that, plants. Don’t worry about looking at their labels because there are none. They don’t come in a box or fancy packaging. They are found in the produce section of your grocery store and from your local grower.

NB: Frozen vegetables and fruit are a good option, as well, especially in the winter months. But again, any pre-packaged food has a label that you should read.


Laura Stradiotto is a registered health and nutrition counsellor, mother of three and a writer in Sudbury. She works as a nutrition coach and content developer at Med-I-Well Services, a multidisciplinary team of health professionals who collaborate with companies to develop a healthier more productive workforce. Wellness Wednesday is a monthly column that appears in the Sudbury Star. To get in touch with Laura, email lstradiotto@mediwell.ca.