How much do we really know about the nutritional composition of vegetable meat?

How much do we really know about the nutritional composition of vegetable meat?

Contains less saturated fat, a good amount of iron and folic acid, but also more salt. There are both benefits and shortcomings to be explored behind what in many respects is a green and ethical choice

Burger plant based (photo: Beyond Meat) Consumption and attention to vegetable meat is growing and this trend will continue even in the next few years and probably decades. The greener alternative and considered ethical by many, which some call fake meat, is based on the idea of ​​being able, using only plant-based products, to imitate the taste of real meat loved by many. While in general reducing the consumption of meat (especially red) can be good, today scientists are wondering whether the total replacement of this food source with a plant formula is healthy for the body as a whole and provides the necessary nutrients. A study, conducted by the group of researcher Lisa Harnack, of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, addresses this very theme, which is still not much explored. The results are published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Studying macro and micronutrients of vegetable meat

Scientists assume that there are still few studies on the nutritional quality of these foods. To partially fill this gap, the group analyzed 37 products from some of the major brands, sold on the US market in 2019. These represent plant-based alternatives to ground beef. The researchers measured energy (calories), the three basic macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates), micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and other components of the products.

Reducing red meat is essential

In any case, it should be noted that reducing the consumption of meat, especially red meat, is a healthy choice. We recall that IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (which is part of the WHO), has classified red meat as probably carcinogenic (class 2A) and certainly carcinogenic processed meat (class 1). For this reason, the recommendation is not to exceed three portions of red meat per week (500 grams) and consider that a high consumption of processed meat significantly increases the risk of some cancers. Even taking up these well-known and consolidated data in hand, the authors indicate that replacing part of meat consumption with vegetable can certainly be advantageous from this point of view.

Vegetable meat: less fat saturated but more salt

Research shows that vegetable meat has some strengths, from a nutritional point of view, but also possible deficiencies. The imitations of meat are low in saturated fat and on average the products contain a percentage of saturated fat equal to 4%. They are also a good source of fiber (15%), iron (10%) and folate (folic acid, 10%).

But there are also some possible problems, noted by the authors: vegetable meat contains certainly less protein, zinc and vitamin B12, while there is often a large amount of salt. For this reason, for those who follow a low sodium diet, for example to lower blood pressure, this choice may not be optimal.

As always, the study does not intend to promote or reject the choice to consume only vegetable meat, but highlight through the data which are the possible benefits of the products on sale and which are the critical issues to be managed perhaps in a different way for those who follow this path. Since it's not all black or white and there are still several aspects to clarify, the authors argue that more research is justifiable and worthwhile to examine a wider range of products, such as those designed as substitutes for chicken and pork. Remembering that knowing more and more is also the basis of more informed choices.

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