Are Soybean-Based Meat Alternatives Nutritionally Superior to Animal Meats?

The Hype

Soybean-based meat alternatives are leading the way in guilt-free eating as more and more people are showing concern for personal and planetary health. Instagram feeds are flooded with juicy burgers and sizzling steaks – all 100% plant-based. If you spend enough time on social media, you might have even passed through a flurry of food bloggers claiming that soy-based meat tastes just like real meat. Others have also asserted that it packs a good deal of protein.

From #meatlessmondays to #plantbasedcooking, vegan and vegetarian enthusiasts are whipping up soy-based meat dishes and proudly praising their nutritional benefits. But in the middle of all this buzz and viral hashtags, it raises one question: Are soy-based meat alternatives truly superior to animal meats in terms of nutrition? Or it’s just another passing fad? Let’s break it down scientifically with the help of an expert on board.

Close-Up Shot of a Jar of Soy Meat
Close-Up Shot of a Jar of Soy Meat, Credit: Pexels/ cottonbro studio

The Science - Soybean-Based Meat Alternatives vs Traditional Animal Meat

Before we scientifically analyze the nutritional profile of soybean-based meat alternatives, it is important to understand what they are and how they differ from regular animal meat.

In simple terms, soybean-based meat alternatives are plant-based products typically made from soybeans or concentrated sources of soy protein. They are made to taste, feel, and look like animal meat. These meat analogues appeal to different types of eaters, from strict vegetarians to those who occasionally eat meat or even the ones who just want to reduce their red meat consumption.

Traditional meat is made from bundles of muscle fibers that give it a firm, juicy texture. This texture is hard to replicate. Plant-based meat alternatives, including newer soy-based meat substitutes, try to mimic the feel and taste of regular meat to satisfy sensory needs. This increased focus on organoleptic properties (taste, texture, and appearance) and formats (nuggets and burgers) is particularly helpful for those transitioning to a meat-free diet.

Dig Deeper: Read another article from our Sensation or Science Series: Plant-Based Meat: Nutrition Savior or Junk Food Imposter?

Table 1: Difference between Soybean-based Meat Alternatives and Animal Meat
Table 1: Difference between Soybean-based Meat Alternatives and Animal Meat

Soy protein, including soy protein isolate and soy protein concentrate, is used as a major ingredient in meat analogue products. The simple reason behind their preference is that soy proteins are low-cost, have a texture similar to meat when hydrated, and offer high-quality amino acids comparable to those found in animal proteins.

Soybean-based meat alternatives are associated with various health benefits. They can lower blood cholesterol levels and may improve other factors associated with heart disease. However, since soy meat alternatives typically undergo processing, certain disadvantages, such as high sodium content or the presence of additives, are difficult to dismiss.

Hence, it’s evident that there is a huge scope for innovation in the next generation of soybean-based meat products that offer enough nutrients without the need to add extra sugar, salt or fat for taste.

To learn more about these plant-based food options, check out the differences between soybean-based meat alternatives and traditional animal meat in Table 1.

Vegan Meat
A vegan faux-meat pie, sold at La Panella in Melbourne. The filling contains soy protein, mushrooms, peas and vegan gravy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Pengo

Nutritional Evaluation of Soybean-Based Meat Alternatives

Coming back to the question of whether soybean-based meat alternatives are nutritionally superior to animal meats, various research studies have indicated that plant-based meat alternatives that contain legumes, such as soy, are more nutritionally adequate substitutes for animal products as compared to other plant-based meat analogues.

The nutritional competency of certain soybean meat products is often reported to suffer from extensive industrial processing and a myriad of additives, but an investigative study argues that “modern meat analogue products can offer roughly the same composition of nutrients as traditional meat products, albeit with many different ingredients and a high level of further processing.”

Does this mean that soybean-based meat alternatives aren’t necessarily better in nutrition than animal meats but are almost equivalent in nutritional status? Let’s find out!

Impossible Burger
An Impossible Burger with fries and ketchup at Gott's Roadside in Napa, California, Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Missvain

Expert Opinion on Nutritional Profile of Soybean-Based Meat Alternatives

To gain more clarity on the subject, we turned to an expert in the field, Dr Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and the Rehnborg Farquhar Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, who states:

“The challenge in answering this question is that not all soybean-based meat alternatives are made the same way, and not all traditional animal meats are raised the same way. Starting with simply soy beans, they have less saturated fat and more fiber than animal meats. Converting the soy beans into soybean-based meat alternatives means modifying the original soybean, and adding ingredients – therefore the nutritional value is related to what was added.”

Dr Gardner further mentions that animal meats vary in their nutritional content, with some versions having lower or higher levels of saturated fat and protein. Additionally, cooking animal meats can sometimes produce harmful compounds like heterocyclic amines. Livestock raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are frequently administered antibiotics and hormones, which may have negative health effects compared to livestock raised on smaller ranches (>90% of meat is produced from CAFO).

“This raises the likelihood that some soybean based meat alternatives are nutritionally superior to traditional animal meats. But it is also possible that some animal meats could be superior to some specific brands and types of alternate meats,” the expert concludes.

Focusing on the protein content of soybean-based meat alternatives, Dr. Gardner highlights that although soybeans offer fewer essential amino acids compared to animal meats, they still provide adequate protein for supporting optimal human health. He asserts, “If the question is what would be optimal for the intersection of human and environmental health, soybeans are superior to traditional animal meats produced in CAFOs.”

Eating Soy Meat
Eating Soy Meat, Credit: Pexels/ cottonbro studio

The Verdict - Can Soybean-Based Meat Alternatives Win the Nutrition Trophy?

Based on the expert analysis, not all soybean-based meats and animal meats are made or raised the same way. This suggests that some soy-based alternatives might be healthier than animal meats or vice versa.

Deciding which food is nutritionally superior relies on “what nutrients are considered of the highest nutritional value. If one were to use the “healthy eating index” for an overall ranking of quality, then a well-produced meat alternative would rank higher than a well-produced animal meat,” explains Dr Christopher Gardner. This is primarily because plant-based meats, including soybean-based alternatives, tend to have more fiber and less saturated fat.

So, to address the question: Are soybean-based meat alternatives nutritionally superior to animal meats? The answer can be yes or no, depending on the specific type and brand of meat substitute and the particular criteria we are referring to while determining nutritional superiority.

Overall, the healthiest way to enjoy soybean-based meat alternatives is to pick minimally processed options and lean less often towards highly processed substitutes. Also, don’t forget to read the list of ingredients on your next soy meat purchase to ensure you’re making the most nutritionally sound choice!

References

Tso R, Forde CG. Unintended Consequences: Nutritional Impact and Potential Pitfalls of Switching from Animal- to Plant-Based Foods. Nutrients. 2021; 13(8):2527. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13082527

Sun, C., Ge, J., He, J., Gan, R., & Fang, Y. (2021). Processing, quality, safety, and acceptance of meat analogue products. Engineering7(5), 674-678.

Salomé, M., Huneau, J. F., Le Baron, C., Kesse-Guyot, E., Fouillet, H., & Mariotti, F. (2021). Substituting Meat or Dairy Products with Plant-Based Substitutes Has Small and Heterogeneous Effects on Diet Quality and Nutrient Security: A Simulation Study in French Adults (INCA3). The Journal of nutrition151(8), 2435–2445. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxab146

Bohrer, B. M. (2019). An investigation of the formulation and nutritional composition of modern meat analogue products. Food Science and Human Wellness8(4), 320-329.

Messina, M., Sievenpiper, J. L., Williamson, P., Kiel, J., & Erdman, J. W. (2022). Perspective: Soy-based Meat and Dairy Alternatives, Despite Classification as Ultra-processed Foods, Deliver High-quality Nutrition on Par with Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Animal-based Counterparts. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)13(3), 726–738. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmac026

https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/plant-based-meat-alternatives-and-meat-substitutes/

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