Consumer interest in plant-based foods has seen immense growth over the past few years. The explosion in PB options in supermarkets has been one of the leading trends in the food industry.
Increased demand for PB foods has been a massive opportunity for processed food manufacturers. When many of us think of vegan food, we may be reminded of social media lifestyle influencers who showcase fresh, made-from-scratch raw whole-foods and various green juices. The vast majority of consumers, however, want PB foods that closely mimic their everyday favourites: burgers, sausages, bacon, and cheese.
And who is eating plant-based foods? Vegans – those who eat an entirely plant-based diet – get most of the media attention in the conversation about PB products, but the fact is they are not the biggest consumer of PB foods.
By far the largest group responsible for driving the PB trend are the so-called “flexitarians.” These are people who eat meat and dairy most of the time, choosing to abstain from animal products on a part-time basis. This may mean following a structured plan like “Meatless Monday” or having other set days of the week for PB foods. Or it can be a more relaxed approach, where PB options are on the menu a few times a month. According to one study, more than one-third of American adults have adopted a flexitarian style of eating.
Every January, people take part in the Veganuary challenge. This is the campaign that invites everyone to give plant-based diets a try and kick off the new year with healthier eating habits. In 2021, more than 500,000 participants signed up to go vegan.
But are plant-based alternatives always the healthier option? While there are benefits in terms of fibre, lower calories, and less saturated fat, just like all processed foods, PB products can be very high in salt. Let’s take a look at some of the common PB categories, and their sodium benchmarks.
As one of the first accidentally vegan products, oil-based margarine spreads are easy to find. The popularity of the first vegetable oil spreads was based on price. It was far cheaper than real dairy butter, and by the end of the 20th century Americans were eating more margarine than butter.
Increasing awareness of the effect of cholesterol on heart health launched a new generation of healthier spreads with less saturated fat than butter. Now the plant-based trend has put even more vegetable oil spreads on supermarket shelves.
Out of a sample of seven popular brand dairy-free spreads, only one was below the WHO benchmark. All others exceeded it, with the two highest at 680mg of sodium per 100g.
- FDA sodium target: 820mg per 100g
- WHO sodium benchmark: 400mg per 100g
The WHO puts both dairy-based and plant-based processed cheese in the same subcategory – assigning them a common benchmark of 720mg per 100g. The FDA takes a different approach, giving “process cheese” a target of 1550mg per 100g and plant-based cheese alternatives a target of 1230mg.
We found several examples of non-dairy alternatives that were higher in sodium than their dairy-based counterparts. Two of these were plant-based cheddar style products with 880mg per 100g – well over WHO sodium guidance.
Just as traditional hard Italian cheeses are some of the highest in sodium, so too are their plant-based alternatives. One own brand supermarket vegan hard cheese exceeded both WHO and FDA targets with sodium content at 1452mg per 100g.
- FDA sodium target: 1230mg per 100g
- WHO sodium benchmark: 720mg per 100g
Just like processed meat products, plant-based alternatives are popular because they are convenient and (generally) inexpensive. They’re a quick, easy way to add protein to a meal – whether it’s a sandwich, stir-fry, pasta, or salad.
This is one category with a big difference between the WHO and FDA targets. The WHO gives plant-based analogues a sodium benchmark of 250mg per 100g. The FDA guidance for meat substitutes is 660mg of sodium per 100g.
Despite the wide-ranging sodium guidance, many PB meat substitutes exceed both WHO and FDA targets.
PB burgers are very popular as both a make-at-home frozen food product and in restaurants. Out of a sample of three popular meatless brands, all fell between the WHO and FDA targets: exceeding WHO levels, but under the FDA sodium target. The highest of the sample products was 520mg of sodium per 100g.
The PB sausages and deli slices we looked at were higher in sodium than the burgers. We found they were all over the WHO benchmarks, and all but one exceeded the FDA target as well. Meatless deli slices from two well-known brands were both over the benchmarks, at 680mg and 720mg of sodium per 100g. One of the most popular brands of vegan sausages contains 800mg of sodium per 100g.
Bacon is one of the best-loved foods. So, creating the perfect plant-based alternative has been the ultimate goal for many manufacturers hoping to conquer the PB category. But just like “real” bacon, the meatless kind is high in sodium. The PB bacon products we looked at smashed all sodium targets, with 1320mg and 1520mg per 100g.
- FDA sodium target: 660mg per 100g
- WHO sodium benchmark: 250mg per 100g
Improving plant-based foods
It’s clear that after a burst of product innovation, the PB food market is maturing. Now that consumers are comfortable with PB alternatives, the demand is growing for improved nutrient profiles. The next generation of PB products will have to match the healthy aspirations of vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians – with less sodium.
As consumer trends and nutritional standards evolve, there’s a simple solution to updating your product portfolio. SALTWELL® delivers 35% sodium reduction – and as an all-natural ingredient, it’s perfectly suited to your clean label products.