Although the plant-based product sector has seen incredible growth over the past few years, significant concerns still remain regarding the veracity of health and nutritional claims made by brands in the sector, as well as the as-yet unverifiable potential risks of long-term consumption.
One of the most commonly-seen concerns raised by nutritionists has been that of high sodium content, with most plant-based products in the market today considered highly-processed foods that also tend to require salt to mask potential off-flavour notes, particularly when it comes to the plant-based meat sector.
According to Temasek Polytechnic Glycemic Index Research Unit Head and Singapore Ministry of Health expert advisor for sugar reduction Dr Kalpana Bhaskaran, there must be an emphasis placed on ensuring plant-based products undergo ‘proper manufacturing processes’ if these are truly expected to change the future of the food industry.
“While the general consumer population is now coming to see the importance of healthier food products, this is even more pronounced in demographics such as diabetics which need to eat healthier as per doctor’s orders,” Dr Bhaskaran told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“Plant-based foods are certainly a potentially healthier choice for them, as these do not contain cholesterol and have less saturated fat as well as more dietary fibre compared to animal-based foods – all of these will help to prevent glucose excursions.
“However, this can only occur if these plant-based products are made in a healthier way using the proper manufacturing processes, as if additives are used in the manufacturing process that can spike blood sugar levels, this would be unhealthy for diabetics and for consumers in general.”
Glucose excursions refer to the change in blood glucose concentration before and after food or beverage consumption, an area of particular sensitivity for diabetics which they are usually advised to keep under control.
Sodium reduction key
As such, Dr Bhaskaran urged manufacturers to keep a close eye on the ingredients used to make plant-based products, particularly salt usage, as this is one of the most commonly overused ingredients to bring flavours up to par.
“Sodium is ubiquitously used in just about every meal, unlike sugar where reduction efforts can be focused on say beverages and desserts,” she said.
“It is the reason that sodium reduction is generally thought to be a very difficult process, but this is not true – based on the same reduce and replace model that sugar reduction uses, if manufacturers use less salt when processing and cooking and gradually bring this down in a phase approach, I do believe that it is possible to make changes [to palates] over the long-term.
“If taste is a concern, there is always the option of replacing sodium with alternatives like potassium salt which can lower sodium content by 30% and without changing the taste – this is essentially a stealth approach which means that over the years consumers may not even really be aware of the reduction of sodium.”
Apart from direct alternatives such as potassium, food firms have also tried to replace the taste potentially lost by sodium reduction with other ingredients such as spices – though as yet no silver bullet industrial solution has been found.
“The key strategy for successfully formulating and commercialising new food products, especially those that are healthier options, is collaboration,” she added.
“Collaboration is really the key to innovation and this thinking is gaining a lot of momentum especially when it comes to academic-industry collaborations.
“It is also important to prioritise consumer-led innovation and get their input at the early stages of innovation, because they’re the ones you’re designing it for and the ones who will pay for it.”
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