Plant-based diets

Plant-based diets are environmentally friendly

Many studies demonstrate that the food we eat has an important impact on our planet and highlight the importance of integrating more sustainable food in our diets. Although changing eating habits is far from easy, everyone can make his contribution by reducing his consumption of animal products – be it only once a week. That doesn’t imply everyone has to become a vegetarian and has to abandon animal products completely, but gradually rebalancing diets by including more plant-based food is a good start.

One of the initiatives that ENSA particularly supports is “meat-free days” or “Veggie days”, which have been introduced across various cities in Europe.  The idea is to voluntarily refrain from eating animal-based products one day a week in schools, restaurants and hotels. In some cities, such as Ghent in Belgium, the initiative is supported by an awareness campaign. Veggie days have been a proven success and demonstrate that gradual, voluntary adjustments supported by local governments can help improve the eating habits of citizens and lead to benefits on a global scale.

 

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European cultivation

The EU is looking to promote protein plant production in Europe, in order to build self-sufficiency and gradually reduce dependence on imports.

As protein consumption everywhere is the world is gradually increasing with rising disposable income, availability of proteins supplies for import is at risk over time.

Soy can play an increasing role in providing a sustainable protein supply in Europe. Soy is already grown in many parts of Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and several CEE countries. So long as the right varieties are produced in sufficiently high yields to compete with other cultures, soy can be a suitable income alternative for farmers in other regions as well.

Because the soy plant is naturally fixing nitrogen, it reduces the need for energy-intensive artificial fertilizers. In this sense, it is also an interesting crop to integrate into crop rotation.

All the members of ENSA produce non-GMO soy foods and support the cultivation of non-GMO soy in Europe. That’s why ENSA is proud to support initiatives such as the Danube-Soya initiative which aims to promote the cultivation of sustainable, non-GMO soy in Europe. Find out more information on this initiative.


Soy and the use of scarce natural resources

The impact of eating habits on the environment

The report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) entitled, 'Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options', highlighted that 18% of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions originate from the livestock sector. This is as high as the GHG emissions from the transport sector. This was one of the first publications indicating the impact of the livestock sector on GHG emissions. Since then, many other studies have confirmed these findings.

 

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Climate change is not the only environmental consequence of livestock rearing. It is estimated that ~75% of agricultural land is currently used for rearing animals, be it in the form of  pastures or land for growing crops to feed animals. As demand for food will keep on rising in the future, it is projected we would need two planets to meet worldwide demand by 2030.

Producing soy foods requires considerably less land and water and emits less CO2 than similar products of animal origin. For example, 1 litre of soy drink requires three times less land, 2.5 times less water and emits 5 times less CO2 than 1 litre of cow’s milk. 1 soy burger even requires 45 times less land, 20 times less water and emits 10 times less C02 than one beef burger. That’s a big difference!

Comparison of CO2-eq emissions, land and water use between soy drink and cow milk

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Comparison of CO2-eq emissions, land and water use between soy meat varriations and beef

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Cardiovascular health

Soy for a healthy cardiovascular system

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) affects millions of people throughout Europe every year. It does not have a single cause and usually is due to a combination of factors. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity, eating a healthy diet and no smoking are important factors that can help reduce the risk of developing CVD.

Soy foods fit into these recommendations as they are a source of high quality protein, low in saturated fats, contain polyunsaturated fats and are free from dietary cholesterol. Soy foods can be easily integrated into the diet and added to meals; in combination with exercise and a healthy lifestyle, soy foods can help maintaining heart health.

chart_saturated_fatIn 2012, the European Commission approved a health claim stating that foods low in or reduced in saturated fats help to maintain healthy cholesterol, following a positive opinion from EFSA. For more information on cardiovascular health and the role of soy foods, read this publication by ENSA’s Scientific Advisory Committee.


Lactose intolerance

Soy and lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance means that the body is unable to - or has difficulty in - digesting lactose or ‘milk sugar’, which is found in cow's milk, as well as in many other dairy products.

Unlike a food allergy, lactose intolerance does not involve the immune system.  Lactose intolerance results from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which is normally produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose that can then be absorbed into the blood stream.

In cases of lactose intolerance, the body produces either no lactase or insufficient amounts. As a consequence, the lactose will be fermented by intestinal bacteria.  This gives rise to a number of complaints such as flatulence, gastrointestinal complaints and diarrhoea.

Approximately 70% of the world's population suffers from lactose intolerance. Its prevalence is generally very low in young children and remains low into early adulthood.  The ability to tolerate certain amounts of lactose differs between individuals.  While some people can still consume certain amounts of dairy products without significant problems, the easiest way is to avoid intake of lactose by switching from dairy products in the diet to naturally lactose-free products.

Soy products represent an excellent alternative for those suffering from lactose intolerance or those who wish to reduce their lactose intake, since they are naturally lactose-free. Thanks to their nutritional profile soy foods offer lactose-intolerant people suitable alternatives while providing calcium and vitamin B, since most of the soy foods are enriched with these vitamins.

Other plant-based products can also be used in the diet of lactose-intolerant people thanks to their vegetable origin.

More information can be found in the EFSA opinion.

 

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Nutritional composition

Soy foods have an excellent nutritional composition that make them fit well in a healthy and balanced diet.

Not only are soy foods a source of high quality protein, they are also low in saturated fat and contain naturally-occuring isoflavones.

Excellent source of vegetable protein

Soy products are unique since they are source of high quality protein equivalent to meat, dairy and egg protein.

 

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Soy foods provide all essential amino acids in sufficient quantities.  These essential amino acids cannot be produced in the body but must be taken in through food.

Consuming soy foods can also help maintain strong and healthy bones.  As we age, bone is broken down at a faster rate than new bone is formed.  Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become weak and are more likely to fracture.  Diet plays an important role in keeping bones healthy and soy foods can help.  In 2012, the European Commission – supported by scientific evidence from EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority – approved a health claim in relation to protein and the maintenance of bone health as well as a health claim on calcium and vitamin D. (link EFSA) Since most soy foods (soy drinks, soy desserts, soy alternatives to yoghurt ) are enriched with calcium and vitamin D, they can replace dairy products as part of a healthy balanced diet for maintaining healthy bones

Read the SAC’s position paper on soy and bone health.

Balanced levels of sugar

Soy foods do not contain any lactose, which is the ‘milk sugar’ found in dairy milk.  The total level of sugars in soy foods is equivalent or often even lower than the total level of sugars in similar dairy products.

Nutritional composition (per 100ml) Energy (kcal) Protein (g) Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Sugars (g)
Milk
Milk, whole 63 3.3 3.5 2.2 5
Milk, semi-skimmed 46 3.3 1.6 1.0 5
Milk, skimmed 34 3.3 0.1 0.1 5
Milk, semi-skimmed, calcium-enriched 47 3.3 1.6 1.0 5
Soya drink 35 3.7 2.2 0.4 0.1

High in good fats, low in bad fats

To maintain a healthy body, dietary recommendations include eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, cutting down on salt, keeping an ideal body weight and replacing saturated (‘bad’) fat with unsaturated (‘good’) fat.  Soy foods are low in fat, low in saturated fat and contain poly-unsaturated fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6).  Today, the European Commission recognises that food with a low or reduced-content of saturated fats help to maintain normal blood cholesterol levels. To find out more about the benefits of soy or plant-based diets for cardiovascular health, read the SAC position papers.

Natural source of isoflavones

Soy foods contain naturally occurring plant components called isoflavones. Isoflavones have chemically structural similarities to the female hormone oestrogen and are therefore sometimes classified as phytooestrogens. However isoflavones have weak oestrogenic effect in only some tissues and clearly differ from oestrogen.  Many studies have investigated the effects of isoflavones on menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and some have shown a reduction in frequency and or severity.  ENSA is closely following scientific developments in this area. Read more about soy and menopause in the SAC’s position paper.

In general, a diet high in plant-based foods such as soy foods, seeds, nuts, legumes (beans, peas, ...), whole grains, fruits and vegetables with less animal foods like meat and dairy can help to reduce the saturated fat intake and increase the fibre content of the diet.