From Impossible Meat to Beyond Burger, plant-based "meat" is on the rise. Proponents of it claim it is more humane (no animal cruelty), better for the environment (vs. raising livestock), and better in nutritional value. I want to dive into the last point - the nutritional value of plant-based meat - in this article. How does fake meat stack up vs. real meat?
The caveat here is: the jury is still out, both because (a) nutrition covers a lot more than simply counting carbs vs. protein vs. fat, and (b) fake meat hasn't been around for that long, so we haven't been able to do a long-term study spanning years to assess the health impacts, and (c) I bet plant-meat companies - and real meat companies - are sponsoring research that tilts in their favor. In my selection of data points and research below, I try my best to choose reputable publications, but I have not done thorough due diligence on the sponsors behind (if any).
To start with - plant meat is widely marketed as having similar "nutrition facts" or "nutritional profiles" as real meat. Companies point to similar % per unit weight in protein and similar (or lower) % in fat. Despite this marketing claim, plant meat and real meat are not created equal (literally).
A study published in Nature in July 2021 finds the below:
Despite apparent similarities based on Nutrition Facts panels, our metabolomics analysis found that metabolite abundances between the plant-based meat alternative and grass-fed ground beef differed by 90% (171 out of 190 profiled metabolites; false discovery rate adjusted p < 0.05). Several metabolites were found either exclusively (22 metabolites) or in greater quantities in beef (51 metabolites) (all, p < 0.05). [...] Several other metabolites were found exclusively (31 metabolites) or in greater quantities (67 metabolites) in the plant-based meat alternative (all, p < 0.05). [...] Large differences in metabolites within various nutrient classes (e.g., amino acids, dipeptides, vitamins, phenols, tocopherols, and fatty acids) with physiological, anti-inflammatory, and/or immunomodulatory roles indicate that these products should not be viewed as truly nutritionally interchangeable, but could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients.
(Footnote: p < 0.05 means it is statistically significant, i.e., the results are very unlikely to be due to chance.)
As Dr. Frank Hu, Harvard's Chair of the Department of Nutrition, said in an interview:
Although Beyond Meat and Impossible burger patties contain zero cholesterol, are lower in total and saturated fat than a beef burger patty, and similar in protein and calories as a beef burger patty, they are both higher in sodium.
Dr. Hu goes on to recommend:
Enthusiasm around plant-based meats and other alternatives should not distract from the bigger picture that a healthy dietary pattern includes an abundant amount of minimally processed plant foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts; moderate amounts of dairy products, seafood, and poultry; and lower amounts of processed and red meat, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains.
I second this view that a healthy diet involves getting balanced nutrition from different kinds of whole foods. As the BBC cautioned in the article Why vegan junk food may be even worse for your health,
Plant-based protein sources usually lack at least one of the nine essential amino acids – the amino acids that the human body needs, but is unable to synthesise and so has to source from our diet. This means that vegans either need to carefully balance their proteins so that they complement each other, or supplement their diet from elsewhere. However, meat, egg and dairy products are considered “complete” because they contain all nine essential amino acids.
Another discrepancy between the quality of animal- and plant-based foods is in their iron content. While plenty of plants, like whole grains, legumes and spinach are high in iron, once again, it is not always the best type. Animal sources contain haem iron, whereas plants contain non-haem iron. Non-haem is not as well absorbed by the body. Being iron deficient is a problem, particularly for women whose iron requirement for menstruation is higher.
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that you should eat a diet that's mostly made up of meat. There are downsides to animal products for sure. The context to consider here is what role vegan meat plays in your overall diet - is it a 100% substitute for real meat? Or is it a complement? Although research into nutrition is still ongoing, we do get an interim answer: plant meat and real meat are not nutritional equivalents or perfect substitutes. To get all the necessary nutrition your body needs, the key is to match foods smartly.
On that note, I do urge popular media to pay more attention to the headlines they use. For example, a Forbes article has the headline "Healthier Plant-Based Meat Is On The Rise" - I am not a big fan of the adjective "healthier", which is misleading. Plant-based meat offer some benefits compared with real meat, but they also come with risks and nutritional deficiencies. It is important for media and health practitioners to offer more holistic advice, and guide the public to consider how healthy their diet is as a whole, instead of how healthy a single food item is - after all, how healthy vegan meat is (or any other food) depends on the relative role it plays on your plate.