What place does plant-based meat have in the diet?
Plant-based meat substitutes, even if it might seem that way at first glance, are not primarily intended for vegans and vegetarians, but for people who eat meat and want to reduce their intake of meat products for various reasons.
Therefore, the aim of the producers is for plant-based meat substitutes to come as close as possible in appearance, taste, and structure to products familiar to consumers. To achieve this, they use various raw materials – from classic soy to wheat, soy and pea protein, stiffeners, dyes, etc. In the end, this is an ultra-processed food. It’s not made to be nutritious first.
That’s why we can find various plant-based meat substitutes on the market, which are very different in terms of nutrition, and if you care about your health, you need to look at both the nutritional information and the composition.
What do studies say?
Stanford University in 2020 did a comparative study comparing beef versus plant-based meat. In the study, they wanted to compare the effect of these foods on health.
Typically, studies looking at the impact on health use conventional meat products, which cannot be considered the healthiest. However, for this study, they chose beef from grazing cattle, which is considered to be of the highest quality.
The plant-based alternatives were also quality products from Beyond Meat.
Participants in the study were randomly divided into two groups. One group ate plant-based alternatives, while the other group ate meat products.
After eight weeks, the groups switched, so each participant served as a control for themselves.
What did they find?
Protein and salt intake was similar in both groups. Fiber intake was slightly higher and saturated fat intake was lower with plant-based meat.
Among generally healthy adults, switch between plant and animal meat intake while keeping all other dietary components equal, plant products improved several cardiovascular disease risk factors, including TMAO; plant products had no adverse effects on risk factors.
These results surprised even me.
Plant-based meat and animal meat had similar effects on inflammatory markers
In 2022, a new study was published based on this study that looked at indicators of inflammation.
Although inflammation is not inherently bad, chronically elevated inflammatory processes in the body are considered a potential risk factor for a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, depression, sarcopenia (wasting of muscle mass), and dementia.
The researchers found no differences between animal and plant-based meat substitutes on inflammatory markers.
But can plant-based meat substitutes be considered healthy?
These are still ultra-processed foods that have a place in everyone’s diet, but they certainly should not form the basis of a healthy diet.
In a study focusing on inflammation, they also noted that a healthy plant-based diet focuses on eating nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seeds and minimizes consumption of processed and animal foods. They hypothesize that replacing meat with plant-based protein sources from whole food sources would lead to a reduction in inflammatory processes in the body.
What to look out for when choosing plant-based meat substitutes?
If you want to choose the healthiest possible product to replace meat, here are some tips for you.
The product should contain as little saturated fat as possible. Traditional meat contains around 9g/100g, vegetable alternatives range from 1g/100g and more.
Ultra-processed foods are characterized by high salt content, which is risky for blood pressure and cardiovascular health.
Fiber has many health benefits. However, the isolated fiber added to processed products is not the same as the fiber found in whole foods.
The protein content is important in meat substitutes, and this is where I noticed the biggest differences between the products. Some are high in oil and low in protein. Proteins can come from wheat, soy, pea protein, or a combination of several sources. Basically, it doesn’t play a role in a varied diet unless you have celiac disease or a soy allergy. Focus on those that contain a higher proportion of protein, at least 15g/100g and ideally more than 20g.
It’s worth noting that plant meat alternatives are generally not nutrient-rich foods and contain relatively high amounts of sodium, fat, and saturated fat to mimic the taste and structure of their animal-based counterparts.
They also contain fiber, and some are enriched with iron, making them more nutritious choices.
Eat mainly whole plant foods. For example, you can prepare hamburger patties from mushrooms, lentils, add wheat or pea fiber and thus prepare a much healthier alternative.
In the future, we will see more and more similar products on the market, and I personally think that the healthy versions will be laboratory-cultured meat created from cells and food created by bacteria.
I think plant-based products have their own characteristics and flavors that are worth exploring. Then you won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t smell, look and taste like meat.
- Anthony Crimarco, Sparkle Springfield, Christina Petlura, Taylor Streaty, Kristen Cunanan, Justin Lee, Priya Fielding-Singh, Matthew M Carter, Madeline A Topf, Hannah C Wastyk, Erica D Sonnenburg, Justin L Sonnenburg, Christopher D Gardner, A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT), The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 112, Issue 5, November 2020, Pages 1188–1199, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa203
- Crimarco, Anthony et al. “Assessing the effects of alternative plant-based meats v. animal meats on biomarkers of inflammation: a secondary analysis of the SWAP-MEAT randomized crossover trial.” Journal of nutritional science vol. 11 e82. 23 Sep. 2022, doi:10.1017/jns.2022.84