Plant-Based Meat Products Are Healthier, but Often Lack Nutrients

Research indicates that meat analogs are generally healthier than their meat equivalents but often lack essential nutrients such as iron, vitamin B12, and zinc.

Plant-based meats, or meat analogs, are made from vegetable proteins like soy, wheat, pea, and rice and act as a substitute for meat protein. Consuming protein is essential for the growth and repair of body tissues and for keeping muscles and bones healthy.

Researchers from Sydney-based George Institute looked at the nutrient content and nutritional quality of 132 plant-based meat analogs and 658 equivalent meat products available in Australian supermarkets.

They examined products like burgers, meatballs, mince, sausages, bacon, coated poultry, plain poultry, and meat with pastry.

The study found that protein content was similar in meat analogs and meat products. In addition, both categories had a similar proportion of ultra-processed products.

Overall, plant-based meat products were found to have a healthier nutrition profile, had significantly less saturated fat and sodium, and contained more fiber than meat products.

However, meat analogs’ energy content was lower and they had a higher total sugar content. In addition, only 12 percent of analyzed meat analogs had essential micronutrients such as iron, vitamin B12, and zinc, which are found in real meat.

Dr. Daisy Coyle, George Institute dietitian, says consumers should limit their intake of processed meats, as they have been linked to various types of cancer.

“But it isn’t as simple as a straight swap – solely relying on meat alternatives as a direct replacement for meat could lead to iron, zinc and B12 deficiencies over time if you are not boosting your intake of these essential nutrients from other sources or taking supplements,” she said in a statement.

To prevent micronutrient deficiencies, Dr. Coyle recommends consuming other animal proteins such as eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt. In addition, plant-based sources of iron include dark leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, legumes, beans, and nuts.

Meat analogs are chosen for health reasons

Meat analogs are also gaining popularity in the U.S., where plant-based meat unit sales grew 51% from 2018 to 2021.

In a 2022 survey by consumer insights platform Veylinx, nearly half of the respondents (42%) said they choose plant-based meat products because they are “healthier than meat.”

However, research continues to show that when it comes to health, meat analogs are not necessarily a panacea.

A recent study from Chalmers University in Sweden analyzed 44 different meat substitutes, mainly manufactured from soy and pea protein, and found that the absorption of iron and zinc from these products was extremely low.

This is because these substitutes contain high levels of phytates, antinutrients that inhibit the absorption of minerals in the body.

The absorption of nutrients was better from Tempeh products made from fermented soybeans. Researchers say this wasn’t surprising because the fermentation uses microorganisms that break down phytates.

“Plant-based food is important for the transition to sustainable food production, and there is huge development potential for plant-based meat substitutes. The industry needs to think about the nutritional value of these products and to utilize and optimize known process techniques such as fermentation, but also develop new methods to increase the absorption of various important nutrients,” Cecilia Mayer Labba, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

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