The beef with fake meats15 May 2023
Plant-based diets are becoming an increasingly popular option for consumers. Every year, Veganuary captures more plant-based-curious eaters through its clever marketing and improved offerings. But are these plant-based options the nutritious alternatives we think they are? Phoebe Galbraith speaks to Ray Zhang, senior research and development manager at THIS; Morten Toft Bech, CEO and founder of Meatless Farm; and Cecilia Mayer Labba, project manager at AFRY, to learn if plant-based foods offer enough nutrition for a balanced and healthy diet.
These days, you can head into any supermarket and you’ll be more than likely find a dedicated aisle for plant-based meat alternatives. The shelves are stacked with mince, burgers, bacon to meatballs, deli slices and even tuna, to be used in countless ways as a meat replacement in recipes. In just a few years, meat alternatives have come a long way from the typical tofu, falafel and Quorn offerings that were previously the only options for the average vegetarian or vegan. Now, with a myriad of alternatives at our fingertips, substituting meat has never been easier.
But are these options the nutritious alternative they are painted as? Hailed as great sources of fibre, protein and vitamins that the body needs, research has shown those who eat a plant-based diet are linked with a lower risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems.
As with any lifestyle, a balanced diet is key in ensuring these health benefits. “Diets [that are] rich in plant foods such as whole grains, vegetables and pulses have been related to positive health effects and most of us would benefit from increasing the intake of such foods,” explains Cecilia Mayer Labba, project manager at AFRY and the lead author of ‘Nutritional Composition and Estimated Iron and Zinc Bioavailability of Meat Substitutes Available on the Swedish Market’. But, as Labba points out, a plant-based diet is not automatically a healthy lifestyle, with many of the meat alternatives containing excessive amounts of salt, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. “A strict plant-based diet, regardless of quality, has been associated to an increase of certain nutritional deficiency risks. These risks are connected to a low intake and/or a low uptake of a range of specific nutrients.”
According to the findings in her study, they found a large nutritional difference of quality between products, with the poorer options containing high contents of salt and saturated fatty acids. This can be easily adjusted, Labba adds, but the low bioavailability of iron is one problem that more plant-based alternatives need to be concerned with. This is due to the content of phytate (phytic acid) frequently found in plantbased products that inhibits the absorption of iron and zinc in the body. “We believe that our findings highlight the importance of including bioavailability in the development of products based on plant protein. The nutritional content of a product becomes irrelevant if we cannot absorb the nutrients.” A healthy diet depends heavily on the balance and variety to offer the right nutrients.
Replicating taste and textures
As more consumers are curious to sample plantbased meat alternatives, the primary focus of manufacturers has been, as Labba points out, on the “sensory qualities and less on nutritional quality” to encourage the switch away from meat. It’s a strategy that has seen success, with an estimated 4.5% of the UK now adhering to a vegan or vegetarian diet, according to the Vegetarian Society. Even among meat eaters, a report by Waitrose found a third have reduced their meat consumption.
Much of the promotion of a plant-based diet focuses on the health benefits to following the lifestyle – something that is not always guaranteed with some of the alterative meats. “Not all plantbased alternatives are made equally, and quality can vary,” says Morten Toft Bech, CEO and founder of Meatless Farm. According to findings published in the peer-reviewed journal FOODS, Toft Bech explains, positive changes in gut health were found in flexitarians who ate Meatless Farm products in over 10% of their weekly meals, finding an increase in the fatty acid butyrate that promotes digestive health.
At THIS, its USP is “hyper-realism” to create the best taste, texture and appearance that mimic real meat. But unlike other brands whose main concern is solely the taste, THIS is focused on also addressing the health risks that high saturated fats can pose to consumers. “The patented olive-oil based fat has the ability to hold its succulence and bite when faced with high heat, just like animal fat but without the down sides,” explains Ray Zhang, senior research and development manager. “The result are products with ultra-low saturated fat. For example, our THIS Isn’t Pork Sausages contain about 80% less saturated fat than their meat equivalents [and] recreate the sensation of eating animal fat.”
“Not all plant-based alternatives are made equally, and quality can vary.”
Morten Toft Bech
THIS is equally aware of the importance of including key nutrients in its products, says Zhang. Having a high protein content is a “must-have”, claims Zhang. The company’s THIS Isn’t Streaky Bacon contains 16g of protein per 100g – equivalent to traditional pork back bacon – and its THIS Isn’t Chicken Pieces contains the highest level of protein (23g) against the five most popular plant-based chicken on the market. “Also, most of our products are fortified with high level of iron and B12 to boost the nutritional profile and meet people’s daily demand,” Zhang adds.
The estimated percentage of the UK population who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet
The Vegetarian Society
While the nutritional benefits of plant-based meats pose some concerns when it comes to substituting hard-to-replace nutrients, there are several benefits that plant-based foods can offer nutrition-wise. “It depends on what parameters one is looking for. For example, despite being very poor iron sources, almost all of the meat substitutes were [found to be] good sources of fibre,” remarks Labba on her study. Studies show plant-based diets can lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and improve digestion, thanks to meat-alternatives’ lower saturated fat, high fibre, no cholesterol, lower calories and source of protein, explains Zhang. Plant-based alternatives can offer a healthier alternative over animal meat when substituted with correctly.
The amount of meat eaters who have reduced their meat consumption.
Can green eating equal green living
Plant-based diets can offer more than a healthy alternative, moreover, with the industry’s carbon footprint significantly lower than its meat counterpart. According to a study by Oxford, Toft Bech says, swapping red meat for a plant alternative can reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 50 million tonnes. “It’s a key driving force to support global carbon emissions reduction missions, especially the many net-zero commitments,” adds Zhang. On top of lower carbon and other emissions, he continues, the plant-based industry requires less land and water use, – reducing deforestation rates at the same time – less waste and improved animal welfare. According to Meatless Farms research, says Toft Bech, “nearly one-third (28%) of Brits choose plant-based food on a menu when eating out because it’s better for the planet”.
The industry is not without its challenges, with cost currently being the largest hurdle for plantbased manufacturers to tackle. Compared with the established meat industry, plant-based alternatives are often more expensive due to their production and development requirements, as well as the marketing needed to reach more consumers and encourage them to try a great alternative.
Taste and texture remain big challenges to the industry, as both Zhang and Toft Bech point out. “Few plant-based manufacturers manage to create a standard of taste and texture high enough to overcome a consumer’s barrier to the plant-based switch. One negative experience with a plant-based meat product can discourage the consumer from the category as a whole,” admits Zhang. This is echoed by Toft Bech, who adds: “We’re seeing the removal of small brands and gimmicks that were listed during the plant-based hyper but didn’t deliver on the quality or taste needed. The expectation from consumers is much higher now and they’re looking to buy core plant-based products that replace existing protein.”
As plant-based manufacturers look to the future of the industry, it is important to take these challenges on board, while considering the importance of nutrition. Both THIS and Meatless Farm expect when realistic meat alternatives achieve certain health benefits, that will drive even more consumer demand.
Labba remains cautious and expects there will be bumps in the road to progress, but she generally hopes that the industry will soon see “nutritiously adequate products with good bioavailability”.
Vitamin K: the secret ingredient to health and healing
According to the WHO, nutrition is a critical part of health and development, shown to help lower the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease. One vitamin that researchers are now suggesting can offer beneficial nutrients is vitamin K. This helps the body to heal in wound and blood clotting, as well as providing direct calcium to bones and improve heart health.
Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that comes in two forms. The main type is called phylloquinone, found in green leafy vegetables like collard greens, kale, and spinach. The other type, menaquinones, is found in some animal products and fermented foods. Menaquinones can also be produced by bacteria in the human body.
Vitamin K helps to make various proteins that are required for blood clotting and in the building of bones. Prothrombin is a vitamin K-dependent protein that is directly involved with blood clotting. Osteocalcin is another protein that requires vitamin K to produce healthy bone tissue.
Vitamin K is found throughout the body, including; the liver, brain, heart, pancreas, and in bones. It is broken down very quickly and excreted in urine or stool. Because of this – unlike other fat-soluble vitamins – it rarely reaches toxic levels in the body, even in someone with a high intake.