Every year brings with it a new wave of food trends, and 2021 seems to be emerging as the year when plant-based meat finally made its way. Though vegetarian burgers have been in the market for decades, the wave of fast food choices is highlighting these alternatives – from Burger Kings Impossible Whopper to Panda Express, which is trying a plant-based orange chicken with Beyond Meat products.
But a new study in Scientific Reports suggests that diet isn’t exactly an even exchange.
Duke University researchers found that when you look at the nutritional information, the amount of vitamins, fats, and protein is very similar to that of real beef. Using an approach called “metabolomics”, however, they were able to study the biochemistry of 18 plant-based meat products and evaluate their metabolites.
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Metabolites are essential for signal transmission between cells and the conversion of food into energy, and about half of them come from our diet. When the researchers compared samples of vegetable meat to grass-fed ground beef, they found significant differences between the two in terms of metabolite levels – in some cases up to 90%.
The beef contained 22 metabolites that the plant substitute lacked, including several amino acids and vitamins. Several of them are known to have important anti-inflammatory functions in the body, as the researchers found, such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and creatine, all of which were found in larger amounts in the real beef samples.
They don’t suggest avoiding plant-based meat altogether – in fact, the plant-based products contained 31 metabolites that were missing in the meat. This included vitamin C and phytosterols, which are naturally occurring compounds in plant cell membranes. These compounds are especially important in lowering cholesterol, which is why a plant-based diet is regularly touted for heart health.
In general, it means adding these alternative meat options could help in getting a full range of beneficial metabolites.
Unless you prefer to only consume plant-based foods that include both plant and animal meat in your diet, there could be more nutritional benefits, says lead researcher Stephan van Vliet, Ph.D., a researcher at Duke Molecular Physiology Institute.
“The insight is that there are big differences between meat and a plant-based meat alternative,” he says. “However, plant-based and animal-based foods can complement each other because they provide different nutrients.”
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