KFC Plant-Based Chicken - © 2021 KFC

‘Processed’ Plant-Based Food Deficient In Nutrients…

We’ve been hearing a lot about plant-based meat substitutes lately. One would think that ‘plant-based’ meant blessed or anointed with goodness. Now, a Swedish University says some key plant-based foods may be flawed…

Panda Express - Plant-based Ciicken - © 2021 Panda ExpressBeyond Meat products are not particularly singled out as problematic by a new
Swedish study. But all products using plant-based proteins are ‘processed’
to some extent, and be deficient in soluble essential minerals…

I assumed (and I assumed you, too, assumed) that plant-based meat substitutes were nutritionally equivalent to the real, traditional meat they are meant to replace. Not so, says a new survey by researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

An abstract of study acknowledges there are many benefits – to individuals and the environment – from switching to a plant-based diet. But the point to the study seems to be, “there are many challenges regarding the nutritional value of these products.”

Acknowledges the benefits of root veggies

As foundation to its arguments and findings, the study notes: “A diet largely made up of plant-based foods such as root vegetables, pulses, fruit and vegetables generally has a low climate impact and is also associated with health benefits such as a reduced risk of age-related diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as has been shown in several large studies.

“But there have been far fewer studies of how people’s health is affected by eating products based on what are known as textured* plant proteins.” (The most important part of that quote may be the asterisk…)

Many plant proteins are ‘processed’ foods by the time they reach your plate. Yes, they are ‘as advertised’ qualitatively. But they may lack the quantity of nutrients one would would expect, and which one needs to properly nourish themself properly.

What they did

The Chalmers team analysed 44 different meat substitutes sold in Sweden (many sold world-wide). The products are mainly manufactured from soy and pea protein, but also include the fermented soy product tempeh and mycoproteins, that is, proteins from fungi.

What they found

“Among these products, we saw a wide variation in nutritional content and how sustainable they can be from a health perspective. [However], in general, the estimated absorption of iron and zinc from the products was extremely low. This is because these meat substitutes contained high levels of phytates, antinutrients that inhibit the absorption of minerals in the body,” says Cecilia Mayer Labba, the study’s lead author, who recently defended her thesis on the nutritional limitations of switching from animal protein to plant-based protein.

“Phytates are found naturally in beans and cereals — they accumulate when proteins are extracted for use in meat substitutes. In the gastrointestinal tract, where mineral absorption takes place, phytates form insoluble compounds with essential dietary minerals, especially non-heme iron (iron found in plant foods) and zinc, which means that they cannot be absorbed in the intestine.”

Women – who are more likely than men to switch to plant-based diets – are particularly at risk of critical deficiencies of iron and zinc as a result.

The takeaway

“It is clear that when it comes to minerals in meat substitutes, the amount that is available for absorption by the body is a very important consideration. You cannot just look at the list of ingredients. […] 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,” says study co-author Ann-Sofie Sandberg.

“Plant-based food is important for the transition to sustainable food production, and there is huge development potential for plant-based meat substitutes,” says Labba “The industry needs [not only] to think about the nutritional value of these products and to utilise and optimise known process techniques such as fermentation, but also develop new methods to increase the absorption of various important nutrients.’

My take

I suspect there are many other ‘Catch 22’s and ‘yes-but’s hiding in the plant-based food pantry. Let’s see some research on those now, so that when we jump head-first into the plant-based foods revolution our eyes will be wide open!

~ Maggie J.