Unilever just issued a report that urges people to go plant-based. Yes, you read that right. It’s a jaw-dropping turn of events for anyone who follows sustainability and the impact our food system has on the environment.

When a company as big, as powerful, and as central to our favorite foods as Unilever (maker of Ben & Jerry’s, Hellmann's, Dove, and about 400 other household names) comes out and tells consumers to go plant-based, you have to sit up and listen. You expect this message from the little guys who make vegan snack foods or even the big makers of meat alternatives like Beyond. But Unilever?

For years, consumers who care about the environment or animal welfare, or their own health have been moving toward a plant-based diet or at least one that involves eating less meat and dairy. The reason that Unilever’s new report encouraging a plant-based diet is such big news is that it’s the biggest parent company of its type ever to do so.

Even after decades of this trend, when a Fortune 500 company and one of the world's largest food makers turns around and issues a report stating unequivocally that plant-based eating is the way to go it's still a shock – and a welcomed one. There will be people who read this new report and think: But Unilever still makes a majority of products that involve animal ingredients such as ice cream and mayonnaise and Dove bars, yet it has to be seen as an incremental step in the right direction.

Unilever issues report on plant-based diet for sustainability

Unilever scientists Nicole Neufingerl and Ans Eilander compiled the new scientific review entitled “Nutrient Intake and Status in Adults Consuming Plant-Based Diets Compared to Meat-Eaters: A Systematic Review” to examine how plant-based foods could improve consumer health. The review analyzed 141 external studies to determine that plant-based foods would rank as the most effective health-conscious diet possible.

Plant-based diets improve nutrition, the report found

The report concluded that by moving to a plant-based diet, consumers will improve their vitamin, mineral, and overall nutrient intake exponentially. The lead scientists suggested that increasing plant consumption in comparison to meat and dairy would show long-term health benefits, explaining why Unilever aims to push a plant-based selection into the future.

“The nutrition industry also has an important role to play in helping consumers shift to a diet consisting of more plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, and nuts,” Eilander told NutritionInsight.

Eilander explains that while there are nutrient deficits in every dietary form, the plant-based diet presents the healthiest and the most sustainable option available. The review also discusses plant-based meat alternatives as a formidable option to traditional protein and nutrient sources. For vegan consumers, the review found that their levels of fiber, folate, magnesium, vitamins E, B1, B6, and C were significantly higher than non-vegans.

The alternative meat market has focused on improving the nutrient intake of consumers, pointing out that consumers can find an excellent source of Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine from plant-based meats. Eilander highlights that these nutrients can typically be difficult to find through a plant-based diet, but alternative protein is making them accessible to vegan consumers.

“Both the F&B (Food & Beverage) industry and public health bodies have an important role to play in helping consumers transition to a more nutritionally adequate diet,” Eilander continued. “It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all.”

Plant-based diets benefit the planet

The Unilever scientists also propose that transitioning to plant-based food production would offer substantial environmental benefits. By replacing current animal-based nutrient sources with plant-based alternatives, international food giants like Unilever could minimize the damage to the environment and even curb the worsening climate crisis. The review cited one report from EAT-Lancet that proposed “ the importance of food as the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth and proposed a planetary health diet as a sustainable solution.”

Unilever compiled the review to showcase how the global food world is changing, and how freshly fueled interests in sustainability and health will propel the plant-based industry forward. The Unilever scientist intended to look into all nutrient deficiencies and provide consumers with insight into the healthiest option, highlighting that food education is the primary goal of their review.

Fixing nutrient inadequacies is the goal

“The main insight is that there were nutrient inadequacies in all diets,” Eilander said. “In all diet groups, people are not consuming a sufficient variety of foods from different food groups to get all the nutrients they need. This highlights the importance of educating consumers on the vital role different food groups play in their diet.”

By informing consumers about the health and environmental profits of plant-based eating, Unilever is also bolstering its own plant-based platform. The Vegetarian Butcher – one of Unilver’s plant-forward brands – reported a 70 percent increase in sales last year, revealing to the multinational food giant the true possibilities of the industry.

Unilever is the parent company of Ben & Jerry's, which just launched its 20th vegan flavor this week. Hellmann's mayonnaise, which is egg-based, is now offering a plant-based mayonnaise alternative. Other brands under the same umbrella

Global plant-based interest is motivating companies such as Unilever to begin prioritizing plant-based food production. Unilever recently set its annual global sales target at €1 billion ($1.1 billion) for vegan products by the year 2027. Unilever's overarching review is just the latest move by the company to stimulate the plant-based market as it begins setting foundations in the industry.

“As you’ll know there is a secular trend toward us all eating a little more of a plant-based diet and we see all our vegetarian and vegan offerings growing very quickly,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope said regarding the new plan last year. “The first thing we’re concerned to do is to make sure that our big brands like Knorr and Hellmann's have got attractive plant-based offerings. So that’s really the main course.”

How to Get Enough Iron When You’re Following a Plant-Based Diet

You may think iron is synonymous with meat, and while animal protein certainly has it, that doesn’t mean you can’t get enough iron if you eat a mainly plant-based diet. In fact, you can, if you know the right foods to choose and how to pair them. The daily recommendation from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for iron intake is 18 milligrams (mg), but not all iron sources are created equal. Here’s what plant-based eaters need to know about iron and which iron-rich foods are best to help reap the benefits.

More From The Beet