The rise in plant-based eating and purchase of plant-based foods were top trends throughout the year and their popularity is predicted to continue growing. But there's an important caveat for health-conscious consumers: "Plant-based" doesn't automatically mean "healthy."
Plant-based foods can include whole, unprocessed foods, packaged foods with single ingredients or highly processed products stripped of nutrients and loaded with unwanted additives. The most important way to evaluate any plant-based food is to review its ingredient list.
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Here are five ingredients that earn nutritional green lights and five more that signal caution. Bookmark this handy guide as a helpful tool to navigate your grocery aisles or when shopping online, so you can drop the most optimal plant products into your cart.
The Best Plant-Based Ingredients
1. Whole Grains
Whole grains are essentially intact grains, meaning they haven't had their fiber or other naturally nutrient-rich components removed. Eating more whole grains has been linked to a number of health benefits, including the prevention of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, according to a March 2017 study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine.
What's more, a March 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that replacing refined grains with whole grains for six weeks resulted in higher resting metabolic rates (meaning greater calorie burning), among men and post-menopausal women.
You can choose simple, single-ingredient, whole-grain products, like buckwheat or millet. But whole grains are also incorporated into a number of healthy plant-based products.
Nuts are a staple ingredient in many plant-based foods, and that's a good thing — as long as you don't have nut allergies.
Here's where nuts' big benefits come into play: A July 2013 study published in BMC Medicine tracked over 7,000 men and women for nearly five years. The subjects were asked to follow one of three diets: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts, the same diet supplemented with olive oil instead or a low-fat diet. Those who ate more than three one-ounce servings of nuts per week were observed to have a 39 percent lower overall mortality risk compared to non-nut eaters.
Apart from raw or dry-roasted nuts, you'll find nuts in lots of plant-based products such as food bars and dairy-free "cheeses" and "yogurts" made from nuts.
3. Avocado Oil
Numerous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of avocado, as well as monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), the primary type of fat found in avocado oil. A January 2019 study published in Circulation Research found that a higher intake of MUFAs from plant-based foods, including avocado, was associated with lower total mortality among over 60,000 women and nearly 30,000 men tracked for two decades.
Fortunately, avocado oil is showing up on ingredient lists in everything from condiments to snack foods, and even veggie burgers.
There couldn't be a better ingredient in a healthful plant-based diet than veggies, but most Americans are seriously missing the mark.
According to a November 2017 statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a mere 10 percent of U.S. adults eat the recommended two to three daily cups of veggies.
Apart from upping your overall nutrient intake, reaching the minimum daily goal may add years to your life. A July 2014 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal concluded that a higher produce intake is tied to a lower risk of death from all causes, especially heart disease.
While fresh veggies are optimal, some plant-based packaged foods can help you conveniently fit more veggies into your daily routine. A few favorites include bags of single-ingredient frozen veggies, heat-and-eat meals and good-for-you sweets.
Apart from not being common allergens, pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas) are great sources of plant protein. This includes pea protein, derived from yellow split peas.
An August 2012 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found a triple benefit to eating more pulses. Researchers divided volunteers with overweight and obesity into two groups. The first was asked to simply add five cups of pulses to their diets each week. The other group was counseled to eat 500 fewer calories each day. After two months, both groups had lost weight, even though the pulse eaters weren't asked to cut calories.
However, levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, the type that protects against heart disease, increased among the pulse group and dropped among the calorie cutters. And while blood sugar levels decreased in both groups, the drop was nearly four times greater among the pulse eaters.
There are a variety of healthy ways to eat pulses, including single-ingredient cans of chickpeas, hummus, bean or lentil dips, veggie burgers and plant protein powders made with pea protein.
The Worst Plant-Based Ingredients
1. Refined Grains
Refined grains, which are stripped of their fiber and nutrients, don't offer the same health-protective benefits of whole grains.
An August 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that high-glycemic-index foods (that raise blood sugar more quickly), which include refined carbohydrates, could be a risk factor for depression in postmenopausal women.
Refined grains generally fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, and according to an November 2019 statement from the American Heart Association (AHA), these foods, which account for more than half of an average American's daily calories, are linked to downgraded heart health.
The AHA cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which finds that even a 5 percent increase in calories from ultra-processed foods is tied to a corresponding decrease in overall cardiovascular health.
Refined grains slip into a number of plant-based products, including some you might not expect. Check the ingredients on some veggie chips or puffs, and you may find white rice flour listed first.
Grains without the word "whole," or other terms that indicate whole grain, should raise a red flag, such as rice without the words whole or brown preceding it. In addition, multigrain doesn’t mean whole grain, nor does unbleached flour.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
They may be calorie-free, but fake sugars aren't a good bet for weight management or health.
A July 2017 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) concluded that routine intake of nonnutritive sweeteners may be associated with a long-term increase in body mass index (BMI) and other outcomes, such as larger waist circumference, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.
Diet drinks, which are technically plant-based, are a primary source of artificial sweeteners. But you may also find faux sugar lurking in unexpected foods, including high-fiber cereal, bread and English muffins, condiments, reduced sugar sports drinks and "light" fruit juices.
3. Non-Organic Soy
Soy is one of "The Big 8," the eight foods responsible for 90 percent of all food allergies, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. But even if allergies aren't an issue, there are other reasons to take note of the type of soy you consume.
Roundup Ready genetically modified soy may contain high residues of glyphosate, a June 2014 study published in Food Chemistry found. Glyphosate is the ingredient found in weed killer that was classified by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen, according to an April 2019 report published in the British Medical Journal.
The debate about glyphosate continues, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declaring no risk to the public in an April 2019 statement. But if you're a fan of soy and you'd like to avoid any possible exposure, choose USDA-Certified organic soy, which by law cannot be genetically modified, according to a February 2017 statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Apart from tofu and soy milk, you may find non-organic soy in a number of processed plant-based foods, including mock meat and dairy products. Soy protein isolate, derived from non-organic soy, can also be included as an ingredient in plant-based protein bars, cereal and frozen dinners.
4. Artificial Colors
During the past 50 years, the amount of synthetic dye used in foods has increased by 500 percent, per a study published in a 2015 supplemental edition of Alternative Therapies, Health and Medicine.
The study concludes that the ingestion of synthetic food colors is linked to significant immunological consequences, including an inflammatory cascade that's associated with autoimmune problems and neurobehavioral disorders in children.
Artificial colors may be obvious in foods like sugary cereals with bright colors that don't appear in nature. But they can also be found in plant-based products like salad dressing, pickles, energy bars, chips and popcorn.
A Note on Carrageenan
Carrageenan is used to thicken or stabilize foods, is derived from seaweed. While food-grade carrageenan is safe to eat, degraded carrageenan is molecularly different and is linked to cancer and other health issues. However, according to the Cornucopia Institute, a food watchdog group, samples of foods made with carrageenan all contained some level of degraded carrageenan.
The debate continues, but if you have digestive issues or a chronic inflammatory condition and you want to avoid carrageenan, the best way to do so is to read ingredient lists.
Brands are continually reformulating products, so be sure to check ingredient lists each time you buy. You may spot carrageenan in plant-based non-dairy products, like plant “milks,” cheeses, yogurts and ice creams.
- Journal of Chiropractic Medicine: "Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Substituting Whole Grains for Refined Grains in a 6-wk Randomized Trial Favorably Affects Energy-Balance Metrics in Healthy Men and Postmenopausal Women"
- BMC Medicine: "Frequency of Nut Consumption and Mortality Risk in the Predimed Nutrition Intervention Trial""
- Circulation Research: "Associations of Monounsaturated Fatty Acids From Plant and Animal Sources With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality in Two US Prospective Cohort Studies"
- CDC: "Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables"
- British Medical Journal: "Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Mortality From All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Systematic Review and Dose-response Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Regular Consumption of Pulses for 8 Weeks Reduces Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Adults"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "High Glycemic Index Diet as a Risk Factor for Depression: Analyses From the Women’s Health Initiative"
- American Heart Association: "Too Much Ultra-processed Foods Linked to Lower Heart Health"
- Canadian Medical Association Journal: "Nonnutritive Sweeteners and Cardiometabolic Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials and Prospective Cohort Studies"
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Food Allergy Research and Resource Program: "Allergenic Foods and Their Allergens, with links to Informall"
- Food Chemistry: "Compositional Differences in Soybeans on the Market: Glyphosate Accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans"
- British Medical Journal: "Probable Carcinogenicity of Glyphosate"
- USDA: "Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?"
- Frontiers in Pediatrics: "The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation"
- Cornucopia Institute: "Food Grade Carrageenan:"Reviewing Potential Harmful Effects on Human Health"
- Alternative Therapies, Health and Medicine: "Immune Reactivity to Food Coloring"