Red meats had been a staple for decades and are now fastly replaced as more people pick plant-based meats with the major reason being “better for you” and “better for the planet”. Since technological advances, it’s been a lot easier to mimic meat products using plant components but how do these stack up against the real thing? 

New research published in the journal Nutrients has found that plant-based meat alternatives lack the nutritive value of animal meat.

The findings reveal that recent interpretations of the regulations claiming high iron contents are in fact misleading as only a small portion of iron is present in plant protein products, thereby limiting iron needs in the human body.

Generally, excessive intake of red and processed meat has been linked to climate and health impacts such as age-related diabetes and heart diseases, hence the rising interest in plant-based foods.

Although meat substitutes have been mostly promoted as more sustainable and healthier than the meat products they aim to replace, there is limited knowledge on whether there are some nutrients limited upon including them in the diet. 

Study Methodology & Results

For this study, the research team from the Division of Food and Nutrition Science gathered and analyzed over 44 several meat substitutes sold in stores in Sweden. The products are majorly produced from soy and pea protein but they also analyzed tempeh and mycoprotein (i.e. proteins from fungi).

In the end, the researchers found huge variations in the nutritional composition and quality of these meat substitutes. They found that the total amounts of zinc and iron present in these meat substitutes were relatively low. They attributed this to the high levels of phytate content—antinutrients that hinder the absorption of minerals in the body—in products based on soy, wheat, and pea protein.

Tempeh or Tempe, made from fermented soybeans, varied from other meat alternatives in the quantity of iron available for absorption by the body. The study authors didn’t find this surprising since the fermentation of tempeh depends on microorganisms that break down phytate. 

Moreover, it has been established from prior studies that iron content is an essential criterion for consumers when selecting meat alternatives and it’s expected that this iron content matches up to that seen in red meat. “You cannot just look at the list of ingredients,” says Ann-Sofie Sandberg, co-author of the study and Professor of Food and Nutrition Science at Chalmers. “Some of the products we studied are fortified with iron but it is still inhibited by phytates. We believe that making nutrition claims on only those nutrients that can be absorbed by the body could create incentives for the industry to improve those products.”

When it comes to zinc content, meat substitutes were found to have low amounts of zinc. Products based on mycoprotein, however, were found to contain a high amount of zinc compared to other meat alternatives, verifying them as good sources of zinc. This is perhaps because they contained no known zinc absorption inhibitors. However, it’s still less clear to the researchers how well the intestines act on the cell walls of mycoprotein and how this on the other hand could influence the absorption of nutrients. 

Regardless, this study goes further to emphasize the drop in zinc and iron absorption in the body upon shifting from animal meat to vegan meat or other meat substitutes.

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