20 Jun 2019

Shifting to plant-based - can New Zealand go flexi?

From Nine To Noon, 9:40 am on 20 June 2019

Adopting a flexitarian diet (eating mainly plant-based food) and even labri-culture (meat grown in the lab using cell culture techniques) have been put forward as possible solutions to food production challenges posed by climate change and a growing population. But can we get all of our nutrients this way?

Rickey Yada

Rickey Yada Photo: CC BY 2.0 / Martin Dee

Food scientist Professor Rickey Yada is a professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert on the wide-ranging implications of shifting to plant-based foods.

Animal-based proteins will always be a part of our diet, says Yada, but a shift is underway and official nutritional guidelines, such as in his native Canada, are now advising more fruit and vegetables while not eliminating its recommendation of animal protein sources such as cheese and milk.

The 24 hectare farm located on University of British Columbia campus, on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.

The 24 hectare farm located on University of British Columbia campus, on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Photo: University of British Columbia

Manufacturers are starting to offer plant-based proteins made from legumes, but Yada says the challenge with these is making sure the nutritional value matches that of animal-based proteins.

He says protein derived from plants differs from the protein found in animal products.

“Traditionally, plant-based proteins have been deficient in what they call the essential amino acids; those are the compounds that contribute to protein.”

Plant-based protein products also tend to be high in fat and sodium, he says.

Yada says if we were to consume just a single-source plant protein, it would restrict our ability to grow and repair the body, whereas animal products are a complete source of protein.

But plant breeders are working to change this, he says.

New Zealand is at the forefront of value adding to agricultural commodities such as milk products, Yada says.

“I would argue that New Zealand is the global leader of milk ingredients and I think we’ll see more and more of that.”

Nano-technologies and other technologies also play a role in increasing nutritional value, he says.

They bring benefits to the table, he says, but a lot of consumers are concerned that if we decide to consume products that use this technology, there will be harmful effects. This is where the role of medical researchers and nutritionists come into play, he says. Clinical trials are also important to ensure what we consume is safe.

“I think the adoption of new technologies is one of education and one of doing further research.”

Rickey Yada has a new role with AgResearch and is a member of Riddet Institute's scientific advisory panel and as this years 2019 Harraways visiting professor at the University of Otago will give two free public lectures: tonight in Dunedin at Otago University and on 5 July Auckland at Otago House.

Rickey Yada

Rickey Yada Photo: The University of British Columbia Faculty of Land and Food Systems