A plant doesn’t always mean it’s healthy

As we head into the new year and people announce their resolutions and goals for 2022, many are choosing to get healthy, quit drinking, or start a new hobby. Vegetarian magazines and organizations are promoting plant-based diets – calling them “the ultimate New Year’s resolution.”

But plant-based meats are often high in sodium, over-processed, and no more healthy than meats that mimic them. Meanwhile, nearly half of consumers think they are more nutritious. So if your decision is related to health, you may want to reconsider switching to a plant-based diet.

The Impossible Burger, for example, is a great meat-free blend of soy, potato proteins, coconut, and sunflower oils. It even bleeds like the real thing. Meanwhile, the number of calories and levels of saturated fat reflect a quarter pound of McDonald’s, and it contains six times more sodium.

The global market for plant-based meat is expected to explode to $85 billion in 2030. Grocery stores note an array of options for burgers, sausages, nuggets, ground meats and seafood, all without a trace of animal products.

What are the nutritional benefits?

According to one study conducted this year, the nutritional benefits of plant-based foods are minimal. Researchers from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation have modeled the results of replacing bacon, chicken, beef and ice cream with animal-free versions.

Diets that replaced animal products with the plant-based alternative were lower than the daily recommendations for vitamin B12, calcium, potassium, zinc and magnesium and higher in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Even with vitamins and minerals added, these products aren’t nutritionally interchangeable, says Stefan van Vliet, a postdoctoral fellow at the Duke Institute for Molecular Physiology. “Meat made from plants is not meat made from cows, and meat made from cows is not meat made from plants,” he says.

Animal sources like meat, milk, and eggs are complete proteins, which means they contain enough of the nine essential amino acids that we should get from our diets every day. Plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains often lack one or more of these amino acids and need to be eaten together.

Plant-based meat manufacturers argue that their products contain similar amounts of protein that are comparable in quality to animal protein. Focusing on protein is “quite simple,” Van Vliet says. “Foods contain hundreds to thousands of compounds that can affect the metabolism of human health.”

Van Vliet and colleagues compared 190 molecules in plant-based meat substitutes with grass-fed ground beef and found that 90% of them were different. Vegetarian meat alternatives lack some amino acids and derivatives, such as creatine, taurine and anserine, “which can have an impact on our health and potential brain function as well as muscle function,” he says.

Other metabolites such as polyphenols and antioxidants are found in greater amounts or exclusively in plant-based meats. He sees plant and animal foods as supplements in our diet, with some nutrients being better obtained from animal sources and others from plants.

the term “vegetarian”

“People choose vegan burgers for a variety of reasons, including reducing meat intake,” says Rosie Schwartz, a consulting dietitian in Toronto. But she argues that consumers should rethink their reasons if it is for health.

“Replacing something vegan as an alternative because it’s called vegan is really pointing us in the wrong direction,” Schwartz says.

According to nutritionists and the Canadian Food Guide, vegetarianism is the recommended way to eat. Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruits and the other half with whole grains and proteins.

But “plant-based” also refers to anything from meat to paint to pillowcases, as long as they are 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,” Van Vliet says. “Maybe not the chicken, but everything else that comes with chicken nuggets may be bad for our health.”

The future of vegetarian meat

Up until this point, vegan meat companies focused on the taste, texture, and appearance of their products. These companies have targeted carnivores by creating vegan marvels that aim to look, taste, and feel like the real thing.

Impossible Foods, which created the Impossible Burger, says 90% of its customers still eat meat. This is not about turning salad and date vegetable lovers into fake meat consumers.

“The whole mission of Impossible Foods is to create plant-based products that directly compete with animal meat,” said Esther Cohn, director of communications for Impossible Foods. “If you eat five beef burgers a week, we want you to replace it, and even try to replace it with an impossible burger.”

With the market booming and new animal-free proteins made from cells in the lab or fungi in fermentation tanks, the options are endless. Can it be adapted to be healthier, too? We have to wait and see. – Conversation | Rappler.com

Megan McGee is a nutrition scientist, Dalla Lana Fellow, University of Toronto.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

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