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From health to sustainability: The evolving rationale behind plant-based food choices

By Caroline Scott-Thomas+

17-Mar-2014
Last updated on 17-Mar-2014 at 12:48 GMT2014-03-17T12:48:42Z

From health to sustainability: The evolving rationale behind plant-based food choices

The reasons why people choose plant-based foods have evolved and expanded, boosting their market acceptance, says strategic affairs director for the European Natural Soyfoods Association (ENSA), Koen Bouckaert.

Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy have diversified in recent years, with milks from nuts and grains on the rise, and meat analogues from a range of plant proteins. However, soy continues to be a top choice, although the reasons for choosing it may have shifted over time.

“I would say there is an evolution, from philosophical reasons, to health, to holistic wellbeing issues, but also for reasons of sustainability,” Bouckaert said.

However, interest in soy as a meat or dairy alternative varies from country to country.  In the UK, about 15-16% of the population consumes soy-based alternatives to meat and dairy, he said, while in Germany, it is about 10%, and about 40% in Belgium – rising to half of the Belgian population if margarine is included.

“People buy alternatives to dairy for philosophical or health reasons, or even just because people find them very tasty,” he said.

“It has very quickly moved from vegetarians to people who looked at dietary reasons…If you look to the last five to six years, you see that people have come to the category for holistic health-based reasons – plant-based diets.”

Bouckaert added that people were also interested in soy as a meat and dairy alternative for sustainability reasons.

“There is also a bigger issue of food security – land, water and energy – in terms of land you see with soy you need about three times less land, and 2.5 times less water, and you get about five times less CO2 compared to semi-skimmed milk, which is very similar nutritionally,” he said.

“There are a few people who only buy for these reasons, but if you combine with health, we are reaching a lot of people.”

Nevertheless, Bouckaert said some people still linked soy with issues that were not relevant for the majority of soy consumed in this part of the world.

“It’s either linked to GMOs – and consumers in Europe don’t really want GMOs – or it’s linked to deforestation, and these are the ways soy often is portrayed in the media,” he said, pointing out that 90% of soy food producers in Europe were ENSA members, which requires that soy cannot be sourced from cleared areas, and must be GM-free.

However, soy’s popularity as an alternative to dairy-based foods, like yoghurt and cream – as well as milk – is increasing, Bouckaert claims – but there is still potential for further growth.

“We believe that changing habits will be a long term process and we think it will take about a generation to do that,” he said.

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