Plant-based foods: healthier choice for us and our planet

By Dr Jocelyn Eason, GM Science – Food Innovation, Plant & Food Research

It is high time New Zealand took experiences from producing premium meats, dairy and fruits and harnessed them for a range of premium sustainable plant-based foods that support healthier diets and our earth system.

As global consumers become more conscious of the social and environmental credentials of the foods they eat, nutritious plant-based foods need to be produced through a more sustainable food system that is resilient and adaptive to climate change and land-system change, minimises freshwater use, prevents biodiversity loss, reduces interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and reduces food waste.

The horticulture, agriculture and food industries should seize the opportunity to collaborate in the production of foods that are sustainable within our planetary boundaries. Together we could establish New Zealand as a key exporter of sustainable protein foods that are derived from not only animal but also plant sources.

Our evolving and discerning consumers are also seeking novel foods that match their new lifestyles. They want flexibility in their diet – it could be plant based on most days with occasional consumption of animal products when they feel like eating meat. We should develop knowledge and products for consumers who wish to personalise their diets to fit their needs.

Amid the changes, consumer expectation for some of the fundamental qualities in food remain constant. Our sustainable, nutrient-dense, plant-based products ought to give consumer a positive sensory experience. Foods need to have appealing flavour, texture, smell and look, and we need to be mindful that what may be appealing to one market is not necessarily appealing to another. Consumer research plays a key role in providing manufacturers with insights into what makes certain foods popular in certain cultures. Understanding these cultural nuances is essential to achieving export success.

New Zealand has the capabilities and resources to be globally competitive in this food system transformation. At Plant & Food Research, we are working to optimise plant genetics, develop future growing systems, connect manufacturing infrastructure, vertically integrate production systems, and understand consumers in key markets, not to mention doing science that will underpin formulation and processing of new plant based foods.

If we fail to meet our future consumers’ needs for personalised foods that fit their flexitarian diets, as well as their environmental and social purchasing drivers, we risk losing our edge against our competitors and missing the biggest food trend of this, and future, generations.

The challenge to our industries lies in a mind-set change because this is about using plants in a different way. We need to move from a “synthetic, substitute, alternative” plant protein mind-set to one that delivers value through provision of a “nutritious, diverse plant food menu” that supports healthier diets generated through sustainable food systems that are capable of feeding our rapidly increasing global population.

The transformation will require a change of land use and investments in new or modifications of existing infrastructure. There may be a time lag to the introduction and use of novel foods, ingredients and technologies, but commercialisation is achievable with planning, design and time.