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The Potential Health Effects of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
With a large number of people actively trying to reduce their consumption of animal products, consumers have become hungry for meat and dairy replacements. As a result of this, innovation is growing at a rapid pace and a new generation of ultra-processed Plant-Based Meat Alternatives (PBMAs), that mimic the experience of consuming meat, have entered the market to satisfy this demand.
But are PBMAs just a band-aid on a bullet-wound? Here’s my assessment:
The PBMAs of today are pretty convincing in terms of taste and texture, which may encourage more people to make the first step towards reducing their meat consumption. For those who regularly eat a lot of meat – especially red meat – these products can bridge the gap between their existing diet and a more plant-based one. This gentle introduction to going plant-based is likely to lead to a more sustainable, long-term dietary change.
They are also convenient and familiar to people who are new to plant-based eating, or may lack the confidence to experiment in the kitchen with whole foods.
Studies are currently being done to directly compare the health effects of PBMAs against real meat. While we have no long-term data, initial findings in the SWAP-MEAT study found an improvement in several cardiovascular disease risk factors when participants replaced traditional meat products with PBMAs. And, as red meat has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen (meaning it probably causes cancer), a decrease in intake may increase life expectancy and give you more years on this planet in good health.
Lastly, some PBMA products have been fortified with micronutrients which may close the gap on any nutrient deficiencies present. They also contain a small amount of fibre, which is found exclusively in plant foods. However, this is in the form of a binding agent called methylcellulose, so the dietary fibre content is negligible in the context of the recommended daily intake.
The not so good
In order to make them palatable, PBMAs have a high sodium content. But, while they might taste acceptable, diets high in sodium are one of the top attributable causes of death globally, contributing to cardiovascular disease as well as some cancers.
The saturated fat content – in the form of coconut and palm oils – of some of the more popular PBMAs is also significant. Excessive consumption of saturated fat contributes to dyslipidaemia (AKA, high cholesterol), which is a risk factor for metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also contributes to chronic inflammation, which in turn can lead to the development of other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), including arthritis and COPD, as well as some cancers.
Another thing to bear in mind is that PBMAs are highly processed and calorie dense, and consumption of ultra-processed foods can cause inadvertent excess calorie consumption and weight gain.
One well-known PBMA includes haem iron as an ingredient (to make it ‘bleed’), which has been associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Other ingredients include common allergens like soy and wheat, so if you have any food allergies, please read the labels thoroughly.
Finally, when compared to meat products, PBMAs are expensive, making them inaccessible to low- and medium-income populations who may be looking to reduce their meat consumption. Although, with these products now becoming more mainstream, we have supermarket own-brand items hitting the market which are driving down the cost.
My conclusion about plant-based meat alternatives
To be fair to the companies that produce PBMAs, their objective seems to be to the challenge the status quo of conventional agriculture and reduce the impact on climate change and our natural resources. And they are doing exactly that!
As you can see, there are various points to consider when choosing whether to put plant-based meat replacements on your plate or not. This post isn’t intended to encourage or discourage you to eat them – but rather to ensure you are able to make an informed decision.
Personally, I would consider plant-based meat alternatives as transitional and to be eaten on occasion, rather than a daily component of a healthy dietary pattern. They may well be healthier than red meat, but the healthiest option remains whole sources of plant protein.