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Plant-based eating: creating a healthy planet through healthy diets


If the world’s food system is going to cope with the double challenge of population growth and climate change, then plant-based foods need to be higher on the menu

A photograph of a bowl of vegetables with some chopsticks.

Food sustains life and is readily available in most parts of the world today. Yet major challenges lie ahead. Not only is the global population expected to increase by around two billion people by 2050, but climate change could well reduce the land available for food production.

Plant-based diets: a necessary shift

Discussing the foods we eat and how we grow them is therefore increasingly important.

“Such a conversation is not just about food security”, says April Redmond, Global VP at Knorr, one of our biggest brands. “The nutritious value of future savoury foods is critical as well. Our ambition is to make it easier for people to eat a wide variety of foods that are good for us, good for the planet and, of course, delicious at the same time.”

Many ways exist to meet this goal, but to diversify our diets sustainably will mean consuming more savoury plant-based foods and less meat.

Why? Land, for one. Hectare by hectare, growing plants is significantly more efficient than meat production. Just 18% of all the calories we consume and 37% of all protein comes from meat and dairy, respectively, yet between them they occupy 83% of global farmland.

There are also the benefits for human health to consider. Plant-based foods – such as pulses, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices – can provide all the nutrients we need to live active, healthy lives.

Plant-based foods: tasty and timely

Worldwide, more and more people are shifting to flexitarian diets – generally understood as largely plant-based with occasional meat. This is a great opportunity for Unilever. We can help people develop healthier diets and together work on a healthier planet, while also growing our business.

We want to work with others to help develop ‘plant-forward foods’, to borrow the phrase of global nutritionists and environmentalists. That’s one of the reasons we recently signed up to the One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition, which includes a strong focus on plant-based diets.

Yet, we also recognise that if we are going to consume billions of nutritious plant-based meals, then today’s food system needs to change radically.

The most urgent issue is the diversification of food supply. Globally, we rely on a tiny range of foods at present. It’s incredible to think that, while there are more than 20,000 known edible plants on our planet, three-quarters of our diets come from just 12 plant and five animal species.

Changing consumer behaviour is critical. While vegetarian diets dominate in some countries (such as India), meat consumption occupies a central place in most gastronomic cultures. Altering attitudes towards food is no easy task. Yet with education and motivation – plus a large helping of culinary creativity – change is possible.

Feature image - Jaap Korteweg
The only way to persuade people to part company with meat is if 'meat' from plants is at least as tasty as real meat. Jaap Korteweg, founder of The Vegetarian Butcher

Promoting plant-forward: products, variants and cooking

Building demand marks an obvious starting point. Many reasons exist for consumers to modify their diets, yet the most compelling by far is that they like what they see on the supermarket shelves and when eating out of home. With that in mind, our brands are working with cutting-edge food scientists to develop a host of super tasty, nutritious plant-based products that can act as alternatives.

For example, plant-based innovations like Magnum Vegan, the Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy range, as well as Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo variant, have all been very well received by consumers across the globe.

Some of the most inventive are the products created by The Vegetarian Butcher. The brand’s founder – Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer – worked with scientists, leading chefs, butchers and trendsetters to come up with his new ‘meat’.

“The only way to persuade people to part company with meat is if 'meat' from plants is at least as tasty as real meat. Of course, it helps that it's also healthier and better for the climate, nature, animals and global food supplies,” says Jaap.

His message is clearly hitting home. From its humble beginnings, the Dutch brand has mushroomed over the last few years and now counts 3,000 sales outlets in 14 countries.

Our chefs working to help more chefs

We’re working on many fronts to shift consumer behaviour and get people excited about eating more plant-based foods. At Unilever Food Solutions (UFS), our dedicated foodservice business, we are improving our plant-based range as well as working with chefs on how to use these in their kitchens and on their menus.

For example, earlier this year, Knorr and environmental charity WWF-UK co-released a 60-page booklet which highlights Future 50 Foods that are nutrient-rich and have a low environmental impact. The selection balances old favourites, like walnuts and broad beans, alongside less common foodstuffs, such as cacti and black salsify (a parsnip-like root vegetable).

Knorr chefs also created a variety of exciting, easy-to-make recipes based on the Future 50 Foods, which it is promoting online and in-store. Knorr is also developing innovative partnerships to accelerate consumption of the nutritious foods on its list.

A case in point is our close collaboration with the international food services company Sodexo. Sodexo and Knorr Professional chefs and nutritionists have developed 40 recipes using ingredients from the report, which Sodexo is now rolling out across its kitchens. The campaign kicked off in September with 5,000 locations in the UK, US, Belgium and France.

Feature image - Ria van der Maas
A more diverse palette of plant-based ingredients makes cooking more exciting, food more nutritious and agricultural practices more sustainable. Ria van der Maas, UFS Global Nutritionist

Chefs’ Manifesto: promoting plant-forward cooking

As the bridge between the farm and the fork, professional chefs are instrumental in determining what we put on our plates when at home, as well as what we eat when we dine out.

Given their ripple effect, we became active supporters and a contributor to the Chefs’ Manifesto. Written by chefs, for chefs, the Manifesto explores how professional chefs can contribute to achieving zero hunger, as laid out in SDG 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals. With biodiversity as a central issue, it calls on chefs around the world to champion food biodiversity in their kitchens and recipes for a more diverse, sustainable and delicious future. A practical Action Plan outlines simple steps that chefs can take in their kitchens, classrooms and communities to deliver a better food system for all.

“A more diverse palette of plant-based ingredients makes cooking more exciting, food more nutritious and agricultural practices more sustainable. And chefs can really do what they love: create new and exciting dishes”, says Ria van der Maas, UFS Global Nutritionist.

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