Are plant-based, grain-free versions of foods healthier?


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Alternative versions of familiar foods — such as bean rice, hearts of palm pasta, and plant-based chicken — can be found in supermarkets everywhere.

Many of them seem to be better for you than the foods they’re supposed to replace, but are you really making a healthy trade when you choose them? We took a look at five increasingly popular products and compared them to the original versions.

Plant-based creamers are made from plant-based milks, such as oats, coconut, soy, and almond, but they are thicker, similar to half-and-half. Nutritionally, it probably doesn’t matter if you opt for half-and-half or a plant-based creamer if you use it in small amounts, says Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, director of the nutrition division at Stony Brook Medicine in New York. One tablespoon of half-and-half has 20 calories and about 1 gram of saturated fat. Depending on the type of milk, creamers can contain about 15 to 30 calories and 0 to 1 gram of saturated fat.

The amount of added sugars is different. Half-and-half has none, while plant-based creamers are often sweetened and flavored. “If you add a lot of ‘cream’ to your coffee or drink a lot of coffee, the sugars can add up,” says Amy Keating, nutritionist and registered dietitian for Consumer Reports.

Look for one that has little or no added sugar. If you prefer a flavored coffee, use it instead of sugar in your coffee. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams for men.

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Another difference: plant milk creamers may have added vegetable oils and emulsifiers, such as guar gum and carrageenan. This gives them a thicker texture and a creamier taste than plant-based milk itself. But “there is some evidence that emulsifiers may be bad for the gastrointestinal tract,” says Connolly-Schoonen, citing limited research suggesting that some of them damage the gut lining. But again, if you’re using small amounts, the creamers are fine for most people, she says.

Swapping your morning shredded wheat or oatmeal for a grain-free cereal isn’t necessarily a healthy food swap. “These grains may make you think there’s something wrong with eating grains, but there isn’t,” says Keating. “Many studies show that including whole grains in your diet reduces your risk of heart disease, cancer and more, and regular breakfast cereals can be a convenient way to get them.”

Still, some grain-free breakfast cereals can be good for you, such as grain-free granolas. These are usually made from a combination of nuts and seeds — which provide healthy fats, fiber, protein, and nutrients like magnesium and potassium — rather than traditional oats.

Just be mindful of added sugars and portion sizes. Ideally, a serving should contain no more than 4 grams of added sugar. “But the serving size on the package is often between a quarter and a half cup,” says Keating. It can look puny in your bowl, so remember that when you double the serving size, you double the calories, fat, and sugars.

Other grain-free breakfast cereals are often made with cassava, potato, and tapioca starches, or chickpea or lentil flours instead of grains. With the exception of the bean meal, which contains protein and potassium, these ingredients don’t have much nutritional value. A recent CR test evaluated six grain-free grains. None excelled in taste and only one received top marks for nutrition.

The latest low-carb pasta alternative is hearts of palm, which are sliced ​​strips of the cream-colored vegetable. People say it’s close to the taste and texture of the real thing. It’s also very low in calories — about 50 per cup versus about 200 per cup of cooked spaghetti.

“Since most Americans don’t consume nearly enough vegetables on a daily basis, eating hearts of palm paste is a great way to get more veggies into your diet,” says Keating.

Cauliflower Chickpea Rice

Cauliflower rice is an excellent substitute for those looking to add more fiber-rich vegetables with a negligible number of carbohydrates, and it has about 20 calories per serving. Rice made from chickpeas does not contain much less carbohydrates than the rice we know, but it does offer more protein and fiber.

These products contain added salt for taste. “Sodium is one of those things that tempts people to overeat,” says Connolly-Schoonen. Plain rice is low in sodium unless you add it yourself. As long as you keep an eye on sodium (the recommended daily limit is less than 2,300 milligrams), these items can be a good choice, says Connolly-Schoonen. But don’t expect them to have the taste or texture of regular rice either. Some bean rice may not have a firm texture and cauliflower rice has more crunch than chew.

Vegetable ‘chicken’

Some consumers think that plant-based “meat” is healthier than the kinds they’re supposed to resemble, but that’s not always the case. The protein often comes in the form of soy or pea isolates. These proteins are extracted from the original plant, but they are not the same as vegetables that you buy at a vegetable stand.

Another concern, says Keating, is that it’s not clear whether replacing meat with these alternatives has the same health benefits as eating whole plant foods like beans, vegetables, and tofu. They may also contain more sodium than the products they replace. But if fake meats make it easier for you to start eating a more plant-based diet, it’s fine to eat them a few times a week.

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