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Nutritional Aspects of Plant-based Eating

Well-designed plant-based diets are both nutritionally sufficient and perfectly appropriate for all stages of the life cycle. (1) That said, depending on the level of animal food restriction, there are a few nutrients that need specific attention, as discussed below.

Protein

Some people express concern that those who follow a plant-based diet may not consume enough protein. In reality, however, this is seldom the case in Europe. In most cases, when calorie requirements are being met, plant-based and vegan diets naturally meet or exceed recommended protein intakes.(2)

Good sources of plant protein include lentils, beans, chickpeas, seeds, nuts and nut butters (e.g. peanut butter), and tofu. Many other plant foods also contain protein, including potatoes and a wide variety of grains, from bread, pasta, and rice to oats, quinoa and breakfast cereals.

The following table shows the varying amounts of protein in different foods:

Food

Protein (%)

Cereals

18-30

Nuts/seeds

13

Pulses/beans

6-8

Pasta

6

Rice/quinoa

4

Potatoes

2

Buckwheat

11

It's important to note that proteins from animal sources contain the complete mix of essential amino acids, whereas most plant foods contain limited amounts of one or more of the essential amino acids. With this in mind, if all animal foods are excluded from the diet, it’s important to eat a mixture of different plant proteins over the course of a day. Doing so ensures the requirements for all the essential amino acids are being met. Back to top.

Fat

Fats are a concentrated source of energy. They provide essential fatty acids that are required for good health, and they're also important for the effective absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

A plant-based diet often contains less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat than does a diet based more heavily on animal foods.

With this in mind, it's recommended that:

  • People consuming dairy should aim for lower-fat dairy products like skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. Doing so helps avoid excessive intake of saturated fats, as advised in both UK and global recommendations.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be beneficial for health. They're commonly found in oily fish (docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)). Plant sources of omega 3 fats (Alpha Linolenic Acid) include flaxseed, walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds and soya beans. For cooking, oils like rapeseed, hemp and flaxseed are preferable to corn or sunflower oil. Plant sources of omega-3 are converted in the body into EPA and DHA.(2).

You may also like to read:

Carbohydrates

The majority of our daily energy intake should come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates that are natural sources of dietary fibre are valuable to human health. Examples of fibre-rich foods include wholemeal and whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, pulses, seeds and oats.

Sugar is a ‘refined’ carbohydrate. Like the rest of the population, vegetarians and vegans are advised to eat fewer sugary foods like cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolates and sweetened drinks, as they provide little nourishment and can contribute to obesity and tooth decay (2)Back to top.

Calcium

Dairy foods are a good source of calcium, so if these are excluded from the diet, it's important to obtain calcium from other plant sources. Non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • fortified plant-based dairy alternatives, like oat drinks
  • bread and foods containing (fortified) white or brown flour
  • tofu
  • leafy green vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, pak choi and Chinese cabbage (but not spinach*)
  • nuts, including almonds, and seeds such as sesame
  • dried fruit e.g. figs

*The large amount of oxalic acid in certain vegetables, such as spinach, reduces the absorption of calcium.

In addition to the amount of calcium present in these plant foods, it's important to also consider the bioavailability of that calcium. This is related to oxalate content of foods and, to a lesser degree, phytate and fibre. Absorption from high-oxalate vegetables, such as spinach and Swiss chard, may be as low as 5%. As a result, these foods can't be considered good sources of calcium despite their high calcium content. Absorption from low-oxalate vegetables, such as kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, and pak choi, is about 50%. Absorption from calcium-set tofu and from most fortified plant-based milk alternatives is similar to that from cow's milk, at approximately 30%. Other plant foods, such as white beans, almonds, tahini, figs, and oranges, provide moderate amounts of calcium with somewhat lower bioavailability (about 20%).

Oatly is fortified with both calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate, with the majority coming from calcium carbonate. This has been proven to be a successful combination in terms of both taste and consistency in oat drinks. With regard to the bioavailability of the calcium, research evidence shows that calcium carbonate uptake is on par with calcium uptake from cow's milk, while the uptake of calcium phosphate is slightly lower.

The amount of calcium in Oatly oat drinks is the same as in cow's milk, and  Oatly oat drinks are also a rich source of vitamin D, which further supports normal calcium absorption and bone health.

The Eatwell Guide (4) recommends that consumers of plant-based dairy alternatives select unsweetened and calcium-fortified options. Oatly oat drinks (except the Organic) are fortified with calcium as well as with vitamins B2, B12, and D.

You can read more information on vitamins B2, B12 and D, or read about the calcium content of Oatly oat drinks (here).

You may also like to read:

  • Issue 10 of the ‘The Oatly Way’ which has special feature on bone health - (here). Back to top.

Vitamin D

As the proper absorption of calcium depends on adequate levels of vitamin D, vitamin D is itself essential for healthy bones and teeth. Most of our vitamin D comes from adequate exposure to sunlight, as vitamin D is formed when the sun’s ultraviolet radiation reaches the skin. Generally, substantially less vitamin D is formed by the skin during the winter months as well as in people with darker complexions and in those who cover their skin with clothes when outdoors.

Eggs and oily fish are natural sources of vitamin D, and plant-based sources include sun-exposed mushrooms and fortified foods like vegetable spreads, breakfast cereals and plant-based dairy alternatives.

It’s generally difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone, so some countries, including the UK, now recommend that everyone take a daily supplement of 10mcg/day during the autumn and winter months. (5)

Fortunately, Oatly oat drinks (except the Organic) are fortified with vitamin D as well as calcium, riboflavin and vitamin B12.

Foods fortified with vitamin D are fortified with either vitamin D2 or D3. While discussions continue regarding which type is most bioavailable, the view of the Swedish National Food Agency is that both forms of vitamin D are equally effective.

You may also like to read:

  • Issue 3 of 'The Oatly Way' which has a special feature on vitamin D – (here)
  • The view of the Swedish National Food Agency regarding the bioavailabilty of vitamin D2 and D3 Click (here). Back to top.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has many important functions, including the formation of red blood cells and keeping the nervous system healthy. It's only found naturally in foods from animal sources, so it's absent in vegan diets.

While it's known that vitamin B12 can be formed by certain bacteria and fermented products (lactic acid fermentation), the amounts may be both small and  uncertain. Algae are also known to contain vitamin B12, but their bioavailability is currently unclear. Vitamin B12 is also produced in the large intestine, but because vitamin B12 absorption takes place in the small intestine, this is of academic interest only. As a result, dietary supplements and fortified foods may be recommended as a reliable source of vitamin B12 (2, 4).

To get enough vitamin B12 in the diet, you can either eat fortified foods twice per day or take dietary supplements of vitamin B12 (either 10mcg daily or at least 2000mcg weekly) (6).

Oatly oat drinks (except Organic) are fortified with B12, along with calcium, riboflavin and vitamin D.

If you'd like, you can read more on calciumvitamin D and B2, or go back to top.

Riboflavin/B2

Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, helps the body release energy from fats, carbohydrates and proteins, and also helps keep the skin, eyes and nervous system healthy.

Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are common sources of B2, so vegetarians and vegans should ensure they find alternative sources like legumes, leafy green vegetables, wholemeal bread, whole grain cereals, rice and yeast extract (2).

Oatly oat drinks (except the Organic) are fortified with B2, as well as with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.

You're welcome to read more on calciumvitamin D and B12, or go back to top.

Iron

People eating a plant-based diet generally consume as much iron as omnivores, if not slightly more. (2) Common sources of iron in a plant-based diet include:

  • iron-fortified breakfast cereals
  • beans, peas and lentils
  • dark-green leafy vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, spinach, watercress and kale
  • whole grains like oats, brown rice, wholegrain pasta
  • nuts and seeds
  • dried fruit

It's important to note that iron in plant foods (non-haem iron) is less efficiently absorbed than iron in meat and fish (haem iron). Vitamin C is a known enhancer of iron absorption, so consuming foods rich in vitamin C along with plant foods containing iron is a good way to promote iron uptake in a plant-based diet.

Absorption is also regulated by bodily requirements, so lower body stores result in an increased absorption of non-haem iron. Additionally, dietary factors like phytic acid found in whole grains and legumes may influence non-haem iron uptake. You can read more on phytic acid here, or go back to top.

Iodine

Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones (like thyroxine), which are responsible for a number of body processes, including the regulation of metabolism.

Fish, shellfish and dairy are each good sources of iodine. The iodine content of cereals and grains is variable, as the exact amount depends on the amount of iodine in the soil where these foods were grown.

Mild iodine deficiency has recently been noticed in many young and pregnant women in the UK. While most adults following a diet containing milk, dairy products and fish should be able to meet their iodine requirements, an iodine supplement can help meet iodine needs for those who don't consume enough iodine-rich foods on a regular basis. 

Below you will find the iodine content of Oatly products:

  • Organic Oat Drink 0.1 ug/100 g
  • Original/Chilled/Barista Edition 5 ug/100 g
  • Oat Drink Chocolate 8,5 ug/100 g
  • Creamy Oat (chilled – black packaging) 5 ug/100 g
  • Organic Creamy Oat 0.1 ug/100 g
  • Creamy Oat Fraiche Less than 0.2 ug/100 g

More information on iodine (here).

You may also like to read:

  • The BDA Food Fact Sheet, Iodine (here). 

Back to top.

 

Zinc

Zinc is found in many foods. Shellfish, milk, dairy products and eggs are particularly good sources. Plant food sources of zinc include:

  • whole grain products, such as wholemeal bread*
  • nuts
  • green leafy vegetables
  • seeds
  • soya foods e.g. tempeh, miso and tofu
  • legumes e.g. peas, beans, lentils and pulses

*Like iron, the absorption of zinc in whole grains can be inhibited by phytic acid. You can read more on phytic acid here, or go back to top.

Selenium

Selenium plays a critical role in certain important antioxidant enzymes, which help protect the body against oxidative damage. It's also necessary to the use of iodine in thyroid hormone production, for immune system function and for reproductive function.

Fish, meat, eggs and milk are all good sources of selenium. Plant-based sources of selenium include:

  • bread
  • millet
  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • sesame seeds
  • legumes
  • nuts, including brazil nuts
  • sunflower seeds

Back to top.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, has several important functions including its role in maintaining a healthy nervous system and in protein metabolism. It's important for people who do not eat dairy to find alternate sources of it (2).

Fortunately, vitamin B6 is found in a wide variety of foods. Plant-based sources include:

  • wholemeal bread
  • whole grains and cereals, such as oatmeal, wheat germ and brown rice
  • legumes and vegetables, including soya beans, potatoes and green leafy vegetables
  • fruits, including bananas
  • nuts, including peanuts and almonds
  • sesame seeds
  • some fortified breakfast cereals
  • yeast extract

Back to top.

Information about phytic acid

Phytic acid, also known as phytate, occurs naturally in bran (the husks or hulls of grains). Phytic acid combines with minerals like iron and zinc and reduces their absorption in the body.

Certain conditions, including long fermentation times, can help reduce levels of phytic acid, so sourdough bread and breads with long leavening times can be beneficial with regard to iron absorption.

Oat husks/hulls (or 'oat bran') contain the highest proportion of phytic acid in the oat grain. This portion of (insoluble) fibre is removed during Oatly's production process, which helps ensure that mineral absorption is not inhibited (7,8)Back to top.

You may also like to read:

  • The BDA Food Fact Sheet, Plant-based diet (here)

References


References

 


1. McEvoy CT, et al (2012) Vegetarian diets, low-meat diets and health: a review. Public Health Nutr;15(12):2287-94.

2. Melina V, et al (2016) Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets; Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics;116(12):1970 - 1980

3. Swedish National Food Administration. Food database. 2016.

4. PHE (2016). The Eatwell Guide. 

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide. Accessed February 2019.

 

5. Scientific Advisory Committee of Nutrition (2016) Vitamin D and Health. London: The Stationary Office

 

6. BDA (2018). Food Fact Sheet, Plant-based diets. 

https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/plantbaseddiets.pdf. Accessed Febraury 2019.

 

7. Swedish National Food Administration. 2014. http://www.slv.se/sv/grupp1/Mat-och-naring/kostrad/Rad-om-vegetarisk-mat

8. Swedish National Food Administration. 2014. http://www.slv.se/sv/grupp1/Mat-och-naring/Maltider-i-vard-skola-omsorg/Skolmaltider/Vegetariska-skolmaltider/Vegankost-i-skolan/

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