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Do plant-based diets provide children with essential nutrients?


A child eating a plant-based diet

Over the years, health authorities have been advocating to prioritize plant-based diets and limit the consumption of animal products. As these plant-based diets are gaining recognition for their health benefits, an important question remained: Do these diets provide children and adolescents (2 -18 y) with the essential nutrients they need for growth and development?

To get to the bottom of this our Future Health and Wellness team conducted a systematic literature review covering studies from 2000 to 2022, which has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients. This research aligns with Unilever’s mission to help people transition to plant-based diets, as it provides valuable insights into the nutritional implications of plant-based diets for children and adolescents. It highlights the importance of offering nutritious and balanced plant-based options, reinforcing our commitment to promoting healthier and more sustainable dietary choices.

This research:

  1. Explored nutrient intake and status in vegetarian, vegan and meat-eating children and adolescents.
  2. Compared nutrient intakes against established dietary reference values.
  3. Looked at the prevalence of inadequate nutrient intake and nutrient deficiencies.

The team found that, in general, plant-based diets, especially vegan diets, were higher in fibre, polyunsaturated fatty acids (healthy fats), folate and vitamin E and lower in saturated fats (unhealthy fats) than meat-containing diets. Though intakes were more favourable with plant-based diets, vegetarian as well as meat-eating children were at risk of inadequate intakes for fiber, SAFA and PUFA. Children following meat-containing diets generally had a higher intake or better status of vitamin B12, iron and zinc than children following a plant-based diet.

Protein intake was generally within recommended levels for all groups but was lower in plant-based diets, especially among vegans. In summary, both plant-based and meat-containing diets of children may not provide adequate amounts of nutrients.

The insights of the paper can guide the development of products and recipes to meet nutritional needs of children, e.g. the use of nutrient rich ingredients in products or recipes, or fortification to provide more nutrients that are at risk of inadequacy. Examples of products that fit in a nutritious plant-forward diet are the products of The Vegetarian Butcher, which are fortified with B12 and iron.

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