Plant-Based Meat: Nutrition Savior or Junk Food Imposter?

The Hype

In recent years, plant-based meat has grown in popularity worldwide. Many people prefer to fill their grocery carts with plant-based options, stating health, environmental, or, at times, ethical reasons. From the supermarket aisles to the menus of restaurants, plant-based meat is now widely available and has become a trendy alternative to traditional meat-based dishes.

Plant-based meat alternatives are also gaining widespread fame, with many celebrities going meat-free and hopping on the vegan lifestyle. Several Hollywood stars are even reported to back vegan businesses that produce plant-based meat products. For example, prolific actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr. are known for investing in popular meat-alternative brands.

Then there are some who are fiercely vocal about their plant-based lifestyle, like actress Natalie Portman, who once responded to the anti-vegan claim that humans have always eaten meat with: “Well, humans have done a lot of things since the beginning of time that we don’t do anymore.” Apart from the publicity from famous personalities, concerns over the environmental impact of conventional meat production have propelled plant-based meat products into the mainstream.

Plant-based meat
Plant-based meat, vegan meat in a supermarket in Vienna, Austria, Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Tischbeinahe

What is Plant-Based Meat?

Plant-based meat is designed to imitate or mimic animal meat products. It offers alternatives to beloved classic meat products like hot dogs, hamburgers, ground meat, nuggets, and deli slices. Interestingly, plant-based meat isn’t a recent invention, and some variations have existed for centuries. Tofu, for example, dates back 2000 years, and seitan, made from wheat gluten, has roots in ancient Asia.

Plant-based meat alternatives rely on various ingredients, including tofu, soy, seitan, potato starch, pea protein, lentils, beans, coconut oil, seeds, nuts, and vegetables. Today, there’s a plethora of plant-based meat options available, with brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat leading the way. Beyond Meat primarily uses pea protein, whereas Impossible Burgers has potato and soy proteins as their key ingredients.

It’s evident that plant-based meat is garnering support from a big chunk of the population, with many believing plant-based meat alternatives power the future. However, despite all the buzz, a question still lingers: Can we trust the nutritional value of plant-based meat products, or are they simply another form of processed junk food?

Beyond Meat Beast Burger and cross-section
Beyond Meat Beast Burger and cross-section, Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Mx. Granger

The Science

The environmental benefits of plant-based meat are widely acknowledged. However, when it comes to health, things get a bit trickier. While plant-based meat doesn’t contain cholesterol and usually has less saturated fat than animal meat, not all such meat alternatives are necessarily healthy food. Plant-based meat products are often tagged with a lengthy list of ingredients, which critics argue is evidence of their being highly processed; although, it’s worth noting that many animal-based foods are also heavily processed.

To gather more insights into the nutritional aspects of plant-based meat, we turned to an expert in the field, Virginia Messina, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan and co-author of multiple books on vegan nutrition and vegan ethics, who explains:

“Plant-based meats vary widely in their ingredients and nutrient content, which makes comparisons with meat difficult. Products that aim to mimic the taste of meat can be good sources of protein. While they can sometimes be high in saturated fat relative to other plant foods, they are almost always lower in saturated fat than comparable animal-based meat. Even though the evidence is limited, some research has shown that replacing meat from animals with plant-based meat can lead to lower blood cholesterol levels and may improve other factors associated with heart disease.”

Several studies have explored the nutritional specifics of plant-based meat and its associated health benefits. The SWAP-MEAT trial conducted by Stanford Medical School scholars compared the effects of consuming plant-based alternative meat versus animal meat on health factors. Results showed that plant intake led to significantly lower levels of fasting serum trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), a cardiovascular disease risk factor, compared to animal intake.

Additionally, the participants’ LDL-cholesterol levels and weight were significantly lower during the plant-based food consumption. Thus, the study suggests incorporating plant-based meat alternatives into the diet may improve cardiovascular health without adverse effects. Another study in 2021 showed that replacing animal meat with plant-based meat options about five times a week boosted participants’ weekly fiber intake by around 19 grams. By making this shift, individuals experienced positive changes in their gut bacteria, contributing to overall gut health.

Plant-based meat alternatives lack a significant number of nutritional studies, with only a handful of data shedding light on their health perks. While we are still waiting for more concrete evidence, preliminary research suggests that swapping traditional animal meat for plant-based options might result in a happier gut, easier weight management, better muscle growth, and even reduced risk of heart issues.

It’s essential to understand that just because something is plant-based doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthier. Even some plant-based meat products are reported to have controversial ingredients. Virginia Messina highlights a potential concern regarding plant-based meats: their sodium content, stating, “One thing to watch for with plant-based meats is their sodium content which can sometimes be high.”

This observation stems from the fact that commercially available plant-based meats tend to contain more sodium than unprepared meat. However, Messina suggests, “It’s not clear that this is a disadvantage though, since comparable processed meats like sausages and hot dogs are also high in sodium. And most people add salt to other types of meat in preparation or at the table,” indicating that elevated sodium levels in plant-based meats may not be a unique drawback.

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

The Verdict

Adopting a plant-based diet can be incredibly healthy as long as individuals are mindful of their food choices. A perspective article published in the Advances in Nutrition journal in 2022 suggested that soy-based meats stack up well in terms of nutrition against their animal-based counterparts. Another paper published in the Future Foods journal echoed these insights, concluding that plant-based alternatives are “preferable from a nutritional perspective in terms of saturated fat, cholesterol, fibre, and a range of other nutrients.”

Many plant-based meat alternatives offer a comparable protein punch to their animal-based counterparts. As Virginia Messina aptly points out, “The nutritional content of plant-based meats varies among brands, but the newest generation of these products, which are meant to mimic the flavor and texture of animal-based meat, are often excellent sources of protein.”

Moreover, Messina highlights another advantage of plant-based meats: their potential to fill nutritional gaps often encountered in plant-based diets. She notes, “One advantage is that many plant-based meats are fortified with nutrients that can sometimes fall short on plant-based diets.” This reassurance is particularly valuable for individuals who choose plant-based meats for environmental or ethical reasons.

Messina further emphasizes, “The key point is that those who choose to consume plant-based meats, a choice often made for environmental or ethical reasons, can be assured that their diet can meet all nutrient needs. We have decades of research on the nutritional adequacy, and in some cases, nutritional superiority of vegetarian diets.”

Plant-based meats have less saturated fat than animal meat on average, though they still contain some. They are also a good source of protein and fiber. However, it’s important to note that additional research is necessary to establish whether the nutritional advantages of consuming a high amount of processed plant-based meats are sustained over the long term.

Overall, plant-based meat holds promise as a viable alternative for those seeking to reduce their consumption of animal products and mitigate environmental impact. Yet, it’s crucial to approach these products with caution, recognizing that not all plant-based options have the same nutrient profile. Conscious consumption, coupled with a balanced diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods, remains paramount for optimal health.

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