As we ring in the New Year and people announce their resolutions and goals for 2022, many are choosing to be healthy, to quit drinking, or to start a new hobby. Vegan magazines and organizations encourage plant-based diets, calling them the “ultimate New Year’s resolution.”
But plant-based meats are often high in sodium, ultra-processed, and no healthier than the meat they mimic. Meanwhile, nearly half of consumers believe they are more nutritious. So if your resolution is health related, you might want to reconsider switching to a plant-based diet.
The Impossible Burger, for example, is an impressive meatless blend of soybean oils, potato protein, coconut and sunflower. It even bleeds like the real one. At the same time, its calorie count and saturated fat levels mirror a McDonald’s quarter pound, and it has almost 50% more sodium.
The global plant-based meat market is expected to explode to reach US $ 85 billion by 2030. And grocery stores are taking note, offering a range of burgers, sausages, nuggets, ground meat and seafood, all without any trace of animal products.
WHAT IS THE NUTRITIONAL BENEFIT?
According to a recent study, the nutritional benefits of plant-based foods are minimal. Researchers at the Singapore Institute for Food and Biotechnology Innovation modeled the outcome of replacing bacon, chicken, beef burgers and ice cream with animal-free versions.
Diets that replaced animal products with plant-based alternatives were lower than the daily recommendations for vitamin B12, calcium, potassium, zinc, and magnesium, and higher in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.
Even with added vitamins and minerals, these products are not nutritionally interchangeable, explains Stephan van Vliet, postdoctoral associate at the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute.
“Plant-based meat is not cow meat and cow meat is not plant meat,” he says.
Animal sources like meat, milk, and eggs are complete proteins, which means that they contain enough of the nine essential amino acids that we need to get from our diet every day.
Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains often lack one or more of these amino acids and should be eaten in combination.
Plant-based meat manufacturers claim that their products contain similar amounts of protein that is comparable in quality to animal protein.
But focusing on protein is too ‘simplistic’, says Dr van Vliet. “Foods contain hundreds to thousands of compounds capable of impacting human metabolism and health.”
Dr Van Vliet and his colleagues compared 190 molecules in plant-based meat alternatives with grass-fed ground beef and found that 90% of them were different.
Plant-based meat substitutes lacked certain amino acids and derivatives, like creatine, taurine, and anserine, “all of which can impact our health and potentially brain function as well as muscle function.” he said.
Other metabolites like polyphenols and antioxidants have been found in greater amounts or exclusively in meats of plant origin.
He sees foods of plant and animal origin as complementary to our diet, where some nutrients are best obtained from animal sources and others from plants.
THE PLANT TERM
“People choose a plant-based burger for a variety of reasons,” says Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based consulting dietitian, “including reducing meat consumption.”
But she argues consumers should rethink their thinking if it’s because of health.
“Replacing something herbal because it’s called herbal really points us in the wrong direction,” says Ms. Schwartz.
According to nutrition scientists and Canada’s Food Guide, we recommend eating plant-based. Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit, and the other half with whole grains and protein.
But “plant-based” also refers to everything from meat and paintings to pillowcases, as long as they’re made mostly or entirely from plants, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Just because it’s made from plants doesn’t mean it’s healthy. “I think it’s very confusing for the consumer,” says Dr van Vliet.
“It’s probably not the chicken, but everything else that comes with the chicken nugget that is probably detrimental to our health.”
THE FUTURE OF VEGETABLE MEAT
Until now, plant-based meat companies have focused on the taste, texture and appearance of their products.
These companies have targeted meat eaters by creating herbal wonders that are supposed to look, taste, and feel like the real thing.
Impossible Foods, the creator of the Impossible Burger, says 90% of its customers are still meat eaters. This is not about converting salad and tempeh-eating veggie lovers into bogus meat eaters.
“The whole mission of Impossible Foods is to create plant-based products that directly compete with animal meat,” said Esther Cohn, communications manager at Impossible Foods. “If you eat five beef burgers a week, we want you to swap them out, even try swapping one for an Impossible Burger.”
With a booming market and new animal-free proteins made from cells in the lab or fungi in fermentation tanks, the options are endless. Can they be adapted to be healthier too? We will have to wait and see. THE CONVERSATION
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Meghan McGee is a nutrition scientist. She holds a doctorate in nutritional science from the University of Toronto. She is also a lecturer and course developer at McMaster University.