Sales of plant-based meat, also known as meat analogue, has increased for environmental reasons and a number of other reasons. However, even if meat analogue does resemble regular animal meat it has an entirely different nutritional value. According to a study from Duke University in the United States, real meat contains 22 different nutrients and metabolites that you do not get from meat analogue. On the other hand, meat based on vegetarian sources contains 31 nutrients and metabolites that are not found in normal meat. The largest difference between the two, according to the scientists, lies in their content of amino acids, peptides, vitamins, phenols, and fatty acids. The researchers also mention that a diet based on vegetable and animal products is complementary because it contains more nutrients.
Meat analogue often has a structure, color, and taste that resembles beef, chicken, or other types of animal meat. Although the food label doesn’t clearly state it, there is a huge difference between the two types of meat. The processing of plants into something that looks and tastes like real meat is rather comprehensive and includes the addition of leghemoglobin, which is an iron-containing molecule from soy. Red beets, berries, and carrot extract is also used to give the appearance of bloody, red meat. The texture of meat analogue is solidified by adding indigestible fibers such as methyl cellulose. In order to increase the protein content, plant protein from soy, peas, and other sources is added. Certain types of meat analogue are also enriched with vitamin B12 and zinc to emulate meat’s nutrient content.
However, according to the American study, there are many other nutrients that are not mentioned on the food label, and this is where the plant-based meat products really differ from real meat.
The scientists used advanced methods to determine the big difference
The team of scientists from Duke University, USA, looked closer at the difference with help from a sophisticated scientific tool called metabolomics. The metabolites or molecules that the scientists wanted to study are all part of human biochemistry and are vital for our energy turnover, cellular communication, breakdown of metabolic waste products, and a number of things. There is an enormous number of metabolites in our biochemistry. Around half of them circulate in our bloodstream, and they are believed to come from what we eat.
The researchers looked specifically at 190 different metabolites in samples from 18 popular types of meat analogue and samples of 18 carefully prepared meat from animals that had been fed with grass on a farm in Ohio.
When they compared the meat analogues and the real meat they discovered differences in 171 out of 190 metabolites. Real meat contained 22 metabolites, which were not to be found in the meat analogues. On the other hand, meat analogues contained 31 metabolites that were not detected in real meat. Even if certain nutrients are added to certain types of meat analogue to emulate real meat, the scientists could see that differences in content and nutritional value between plant-based meat and real meat is every bit as big as the difference between plants and animals.
Why it is so important to know the difference
The biggest differences, according to the scientists, is in the content of amino acids, dipeptides, vitamins, phenols, and certain types of saturated and unsaturated fat. In meat, they found rather large amounts of metabolites that are good for our health – such as creatine, spermine, anserine, cysteamine, glucosamine, squalene, and the omega-3 fatty acid called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). According to the researchers, these nutrients have a number of essential physiological, immunological, and anti-inflammatory properties. Also, they have structural importance for our muscle mass and brain.
It is, however, possible for some people to live perfectly healthy lives by eating a plant-based diet without animal products. In fact, the researchers observed that plant-based alternatives to meat contained a greater number of health-improving metabolites such as phytosterols and phenols. Also, they contain a variety of antioxidants plus more fiber that is good for your digestion.
It is important, the scientists point out, for consumers to know about the large nutritional differences between real meat and plant-based meat analogues. If you combine vegetable and animal food sources you obtain a complementary effect with more healthy nutrients.
More studies are needed to map out the short- and long-term effect of either eating or not eating specific metabolites in meat and meat analogues. The new study is published in Scientific Reports.
Vegetarians and vegans must focus on vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, iron, and selenium
According to a German study, most vegetarians and vegans get enough vitamin B12 because they often take supplements. Still, many lack iodine and iron. Plant-based diets do not provide vitamin D and selenium deficiencies are common due to the nutrient-depleted farmland. Deficiency diseases are often insidious and can be difficult to trace to the diet. For that reason, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration recommends relevant and necessary supplements for children and adults living on vegetarian or vegan diets.
Stephan van Vliet, et al. A metabolomics comparison of plant-based meat of grass-fed meat indicates large nutritional differences comparable Nutrition Facts panels. Scientific Reports 2021
Duke University: Lab analysis finds near-meat and meat not nutritionally equivalent. ScienceDaily 2021
Weikert C et al. Vitamin and Mineral Status in a Vegan Diet. Deutsches Aerzteblatt Online. November, 2020
BfR Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Veganism: Vitamin B 12 is well supplemented, iodine is a matter of concern. Science daily, November 10, 2020
Else Molander. Anbefalinger vedr. vegansk kost. Fødevarestyrelsen. Januar 2019
Ulla Gjeset Schølberg. Veganere mangler vitaminer og mineraler. Videnskab.dk 2016
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