Do plant-based meats actually substitute real meat?

Plant-based meat has been championed by environmentalists globally, saying that consumers should switch to the substitute. Faux meat, we have been told, is better for the environment and the body. Well, that is only partially true, according to a new study.

A paper published by the Chalmer’s University of Technology in Sweden showed that plant-based alternatives might not be as easily absorbed in the human body as real meat. The study aimed to identify if there are nutritional limitations connected to inducing meat substitutes in the diet. 

This study doesn’t necessarily reveal any groundbreaking news. I learned the same thing in my animal science class at Iowa State. I briefly explained the concept in a column for the Iowa State Daily column in September 2021. 

“Animal tissues contain heme iron, an essential mineral in the diet that aids in transporting oxygen throughout the blood by hemoglobin. The body absorbs heme iron faster than non-heme iron found in plants, making it more readily available for nutrient digestion.”

The Swedish study reinforced this by exploring the bioavailability of iron. However, it found that the nutrition claim of iron in plant-based products could be misleading due to the lower bioavailability of essential nutrients. 

“A main area of concern is the very low estimated iron and zinc bioavailability of meat substitutes, caused by the very high phytate content in products based on soy, pea, and wheat protein,” the study concluded.”

Phytate is a natural compound found in plants that serve as a storage form of phosphorus that reduces bioavailability in the gastrointestinal tract when consumed, making it an anti-nutrient. Specifically, whole grains, seeds, legumes, and some nuts can decrease the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium – all essential to the human diet. 

That is why some doctors recommend reducing or eliminating even whole grains from the diet. 

The Swedish study added that poor absorption of dietary iron could cause iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, especially among risk groups, including pregnant women. These are all risks, of course, not guarantees. 

The study doesn’t demonize plant-based meat. However, if consumers want to be conscientious about their diet and protein intake, reading labels may be necessary (not just the packaging or product labels but nutritional labels as well). The study said it is feasible for meat substitutes to cover the dietary needs of adults. However, more work must be done if companies want to phase out meat consumption. That came from the study’s final line in the conclusion: “More research is needed to investigate the effects on nutrition and health of extracted and extruded plant proteins.”

That points out that the current Impossible burger or Beyond burger may not be the “healthier” substitute. Replicating what real meat offers the human diet is difficult, if not impossible. 

As mentioned earlier, this study doesn’t necessarily offer new insights into the so-called healthier plant-based options. It reinforces the idea that real meat is a dietary necessity for many and should not be thrown out the door just because corporate executives want to eliminate animal agriculture. 

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