Demystifying Plant-based Meat
Queenie Woo, HK BioTek Intern
About plant-based meat
In recent years, along with the rising adoption of plant-based lifestyle as one of the trendiest and eco-conscious ways of living, the demand for plant-based meat substitutes have surged globally. It is becoming a popular meat alternative across grocery and foodservice channels.
Unlike traditional vegetarian meat alternatives such as vegetarian chicken and vegetarian “lo mei”, the new generation of plant-based meat alternatives are designed to imitate the sensory qualities of real meat. The addition of plant-based ingredients and processing techniques gives plant-based meat its appearances (usually by the addition of beet extract, pomegranate powder and soy leghemoglobin), textures and flavours (through the usage of soy protein, pea protein and food additives such as salt). These faux meats are manufactured into many forms, including patties of burgers, sausages, mince and poultry pieces, etc. It has successfully attracted a portion of consumers in the meat market, especially vegetarians. Nevertheless, is this novel category of meat a healthier and more nutritious option in replacement of conventional red meat?
Health issues associated with conventional red meat
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) classified red meat as "probably carcinogenic to humans" (Group 2A). There has been a strong mechanistic basis showing that when red meat is processed with high-heat cooking methods (e.g. barbequing), it would generate several notorious carcinogens such as Heterocyclic Amines (HAs) and Polycyclic Hydrocarbons. However, the consumption threshold of red meat and under what conditions would it be carcinogenic and pose a threat to human health, is yet to be investigated.
Apart from being carcinogenic, high consumption of red meat, particularly processed meat, have consistently demonstrated a positive dose-response relationship between the increased incidence and cases of mortality due to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus. It is speculated that overconsumption of components such as saturated fat, nitrates, nitrites and haem iron found in red meats are the culprits of oxidative stress and chronic inflammation in the human body. All these conditions favour the development of non-infectious chronic disease.
Nutritional Profile of Plant-Based Meat
Albeit the above, there is an agreement on the positive contribution of animal products, in which they could be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation by providing some essential nutrients. Correspondingly, analysis of the nutritional profile of plant-based meat gives an objective comparison on whether it is a viable, healthier and nutritious replacement for conventional meat.
Following table displays the common nutrients and their source of ingredients found in the new generation of plant-based meat.
Common ingredients in plant-based meat and conventional meat equivalents:
Plant proteins (soy, wheat/wheat gluten, pea, rice, and other unspecified vegetable proteins as whole foods, flours, concentrates and isolates), mycoprotein
Canola oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, other vegetable oil
Plant starches (corn, potato, rice, wheat, other), plant flours (wheat, rice), sugar, onion, oats
Cellulose/methylcellulose, vegetable fibres (konjac, pea, potato), gums (xanthan, guar, other)
Vitamins and Minerals*
Iron, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc
(*The presence and concentration of these vitamins and minerals differ by the ways of supplementation or fortification of flour used in different plant-based meat)
Plant-based Meat vs Conventional Meat: What you should know
In reality, when compared with its conventional counterpart, most categories of plant-based meats have, on average, a lower or comparable dietary energy. Majority of its brands also provide higher or comparable protein content and are lower in fat and saturated fats than their conventional meat equivalents. Additionally, contrary to conventional meat, they could be a good source of health promoting dietary fibre that is essential for proper gut function and is known to reduce the risk of chronic diseases like colorectal cancer and type-2 diabetes mellitus.
In addition, sodium content varies between brands and types of plant-based meat. Specifically, plant-based minces are found with higher sodium content, and plant-based burgers have been criticized for their higher sodium content than conventional meat. Consumers should therefore be aware of excessive sodium intake that might lead to hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Rather than fixating on the sodium content, one could also choose appropriate cooking methods and toppings(such as ground black pepper, garlic or lemon juice) to prevent the overconsumption of sodium intake.
Regarding its health benefits, with reference to the latest research, consuming plant-based meat (about 2 servings per day) instead of ground meat could aid the amelioration of several risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as lowering TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide) levels, LDL cholesterol, and weight, and no adverse effects on the risk factors of cardiovascular disease are reported.
Tips for plant-based meat selection and consumption
Although plant-based meat generally reflects a better nutritional profile when compared with conventional red meat, this does not necessarily mean one could be free from health concerns when consuming them frequently. What’s important is to read the food labels and differentiate plant-based meat products with lower amounts of sodium and higher dietary fibre. Preferably, it is recommended to select plant-based meat with a low or moderate salt content, i.e., 120 – 400mg sodium per 100g and plant-based meats with high fibre content, i.e., consist of 4g of fibre or more per 100g.
Potential in causing food allergy
Plant-based meat has the potential in causing an allergy response as some of them are made from soy or pea protein, which are common types of allergens. The similarity of the pea and peanut proteins is also capable of triggering cross-reaction and life-threatening allergic response. Therefore, caution is warranted, particularly for those with food allergies and it is critical to always read the food labels to check for potential allergens while purchasing plant-based products.