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


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Alternative versions of familiar foods — like rice with beans, hearts of palm pasta and plant-based chicken — are everywhere in supermarkets.

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

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

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

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

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Another difference: Plant milk creamers may have added plant oils and emulsifiers, such as guar gum and carrageenan. These give them a thicker texture and a creamier taste than plant milk itself. But “there are indicators that emulsifiers might be bad for the gastrointestinal tract,” says Connolly-Schoonen, referring to limited research suggesting that some of them damage the intestinal lining. Again, though, if you’re using small amounts, creams are fine for most people, she says.

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

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

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

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

The final low-carb pasta alternative is heart of palm, which is a cut-out strip of cream-colored vegetable. People say it’s close in taste and texture to the real thing. It’s also very low in calories – around 50 per cup compared to around 200 per cup of cooked spaghetti.

“Since most Americans don’t get enough vegetables per day, eating hearts of palm pasta is a great way to increase the vegetables in your diet,” says Keating.

Cauliflower rice and chickpeas

Riced cauliflower is a great substitute for people looking to add more fiber-rich vegetables with a negligible carb count, and it’s about 20 calories per serving. Chickpea-based rice isn’t much lower in carbs than the rice we know, but it does offer more protein and fiber.

These products contain added salt for flavor. “Sodium is one of those things that makes people overeat,” says Connolly-Schoonen. Regular 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 to have the flavor or texture of regular rice either. Some bean rice may not have a firm texture and cauliflower rice has more crunch than chewiness.

Vegetable “chicken”

Some consumers think that plant-based “meats” are healthier than the types they’re supposed to look like, but that’s not always the case. The protein often comes in the form of soy or pea isolates. These proteins have been extracted from the original plant, but they are not the same as the vegetables you buy at a fresh produce stand.

Another concern, Keating says, is that it’s unclear whether replacing meats with these alternatives has the same health benefits as eating whole plant foods like beans, vegetables and tofu. They may also be higher in sodium than the products they replace. But if fake meats make it easier for you to start eating more plant-based, having it a few times a week is fine.

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