- Plant-based meats have gained popularity, but consumers should be aware of the nutritional differences between them and animal meats, especially in terms of protein content and absorption rates of nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12.
- Protein intake can be challenging for those avoiding animal products, as plant-based proteins often provide less protein compared to animal sources. Daily recommended intake suggests 46 grams for women, 56 grams for men.
- Not all plant-based alternatives are equal in terms of health benefits. Some processed meat substitutes can have higher sodium content and saturated fats, and may contain additives due to intense processing or genetic engineering.
- Beans and legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans can be healthier alternatives to meat substitutes. They’re rich in protein and provide good amounts of fiber and iron.
- Balance in your food choices and the right dietary moderation can contribute to a healthier lifestyle, allowing you to cater to your nutritional needs with a mix of animal products, fruits, vegetables, and other dietary choices.
From supermarkets to restaurant menus, there’s a visible upsurge in the inclusion of plant-based meat substitutes. These alternatives are not solely confined to the dietary habits of vegetarians and vegans. In fact, Nielsen’s research indicates that nearly 98% of meat substitute consumers also purchase traditional meat.
Meat Substitutes and Nutritional Balance
Despite the growing fondness for these ‘alt-meats’, it’s essential for consumers to address the nutritional differences between these and their conventional counterparts. This becomes paramount especially for those who’ve decided to completely put aside animal products.
“While finding alternative sources of protein isn’t difficult, those opting for a diet void of dairy, meat, or eggs might have difficulty reaching the recommended daily protein intake,” stated Jo Ann Carson, a retired professor of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
For instance, traditional tofu offers about 8 grams of protein per 100 grams, whereas ground beef typically houses 19 grams and ground chicken around 17. The established dietary guidelines advocate for 10% to 35% of a day’s total calories to be obtained from proteins. This equates to a daily intake of 46 grams of protein for women and 56 grams for men.
The Full Story
However, the nutritional concerns do not stop at protein. “Animal-based iron, found in beef, is readily absorbed by the body, unlike plant-based iron. There’s also vitamin B12 to consider, which is mainly sourced from animal products or dietary supplements. A deficiency of this vitamin may potentially lead to anemia,” explained Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine.
Identifying Healthier Alternatives
A study by restaurant consulting group Baum+Whiteman indicated that while 31% of Americans have meat-free diets on certain days and 83% are adding plant-based alternatives for their health, not all substitutes truly deliver on the health front.
Selecting meat substitutes often results in consuming more processed foods. The implications of this over the long term, according to Carson, aren’t entirely clear yet. Consumers must be aware of these potential trade-offs when opting for meat substitutes.
Camire added, “Many of these products are designed for their likeness to certain well-structured proteins but they can be both a gift and a curse. They may carry the same amount of protein as actual meat but usually come with a higher portion of sodium and may even have more saturated fats.”
Emerging reports suggest that the resemblance of these new meat substitutes to traditional meat in terms of texture, smell and even the ‘bleed’ factor, is a result of genetic engineering or intense processing.
“In stark contrast to the general preference for clean labels, many of these meat substitutes are laden with additives,” observed Camire.
An Alternative to the Alternatives
For a healthy alternative to meat, Camire suggests beans and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and soybeans. These are rich in proteins and also a good source of fiber and iron.
The solution may ultimately lie in balancing your intake as per your nutritional needs among animal products, fruits, vegetables and other dietary choices.
While finding the right moderation and variety in diet can be challenging, they are integral to a healthier lifestyle – even if they may not be the most popular or ‘sexy’ topics.