Vegan-Friendly Meat Alternatives May be Worse for Health
Plant-based meat alternatives are increasingly popular, giving the perception of numerous health benefits. Megan Rossi, a dietician at King’s College London and author of Eat Yourself Healthy explained to BBC News, “Obviously the pros are that [veganism] is getting people to think about plant-based foods, but the con is that it makes us think that it is good for you when it can be equally or more unhealthy.”
Switching to a vegan diet may be an attempt to improve health, but that is not always the outcome. For example, vegan cheese is usually made of coconut oils, containing more saturated fat than animal sources. Rossi stated that most vegan cheeses are not fermented, the process in real cheese that provides health beneficial peptides, and “are calorific but have [degraded] nutrients.”
A common meat-alternative, tofu, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, which needs to be converted to eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) to produce health benefits in the human body. Unfortunately, humans cannot make this conversion. Jackfruit is another popular meat alternative. Typically replacing pork or beef, jackfruit contains virtually no protein and is made of mostly carbohydrates. Even plant-based meat alternatives that do contain protein, like beans, are of lesser quality than animal-based proteins. Rachel Clarkson, a dietitian, makes the important point that “proteins are made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of every cell and hormone in our body. However, most plants do not contain good amounts of all essential amino acids.” Of the nine essential amino acids, plant-based sources usually are missing at least one. On the other hand, meat, eggs, and dairy products contain all nine.
Another concerning factor is the lack of quality iron in plant-based sources. Animal protein contains heme iron, while plant sources contain non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is not well absorbed by the body and can lead to iron deficiency. In a meta-analysis, vegans were at the highest risk for iron deficiency, compared to vegetarians and omnivores. Another study found that 25% of vegans have very low blood iron, compared to 0% of omnivores.
There is also confusion over what exactly a plant-based meat alternative is. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) conducted a survey, revealing that out of 1,800 participants, nearly two-thirds thought fake meat products contained real beef. The survey also discovered consumers tend to believe that plant-based fake meats are healthier due to the lower fat and sodium content, heart health, and the overall health perception of vegetables and plants. NCBA plans to address the misinformation associated with plant-based fake meats as part of its 2020 policy priorities.
“This research is a wake-up call for our industry, the news media, and for federal regulators,” Jennifer Houston, President of NCBA, stated in a press release. “We in the beef industry need to do a better job educating consumers about the fact that beef is a nutrient-rich source of high-quality protein and essential nutrients that can play a key role in any healthy lifestyle,” and address the “misinformed about exactly what’s in these new plant-based alternatives,” that might lead to negative health outcomes.