Plant-based alternatives healthier than meat and processing can be nutritionally beneficial, study finds
The processing of plant-based meat alternatives does not automatically make them unhealthy, and in many cases can improve their nutritional value, according to a new study.
Authored by the University of Bath’s Dr Chris Bryant, the report examined 43 studies into the health and environmental impacts of plant-based foods, as well as literature on consumer attitudes.
“Some consumers may view PB-APAs as unnatural or overly-processed, and incorrectly infer that they are therefore unhealthy, damaging to the environment, or bad in other ways,” the report says, adding that there is often a correlation between how ‘natural’ a product is and how good or bad it is perceived to be.
However, Dr Bryant found that while science considers processed meat as mostly bad for health, processed plant-based alternatives can come with a wealth of benefits.
One paper cited by Dr Bryant highlights how turning legumes into plant-based meat can enhance people’s ability to digest them. Another showed that adding jackfruit byproducts could boost protein and fibre within a product significantly.
Fortification has long been a practice within the plant-based sector – plant milks in particular usually have iodine, calcium or other vitamins, such as B12, added in.
Dr Bryant says future innovations will likely explore fortification within processing further, for example by adding ingredients like edible fungi, microalgae and spirulina to foods to boost their content of amino acids, antioxidants or vitamins B and E.
Other studies assessed in the report found considerable physical benefits associated with eating plant-based meat. This included a 49% lower risk of hip fracture, and a significant reduction in insulin responses, which could potentially reduce insulin release in overweight people.
Alongside insight into processing and the healthiness of plant-based meats, Dr Bryant also explored the environmental impact of products. Though the primary driver behind consumers’ eating choices is not the environment, he writes in the report, plant-based meat products still offer considerable environmental advantages over meat.
One paper focused on the German market found that replacing 5% of beef consumption with pea protein would reduce CO2 emissions by eight million tonnes a year. Another cited by Dr Bryant found that compared to beef burgers, plant-based burgers were associated with up to 98% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Rather than the environment, it is cost, healthiness, taste and convenience that most influence consumers’ eating habits. Because of this, it is often plant-based alternatives that most closely resemble meat which attract the attention of consumers.
One study highlighted by Dr Bryant found almost 90% of consumers who bought plant-based meat and dairy still ate meat. This chimes with other data, which suggests more people than ever are following a ‘flexitarian’ diet – an eating regime characterised by mainly plant-based foods and only occasional meat and dairy.
Another study cited in the report adds that plant-based products which are most similar in taste, texture and price have the best chance of replacing their meat counterparts. Because of this, there is still plenty of potential for companies to innovate within the space, Dr Bryant explained.
“Despite the incredible advances that plant-based producers have made over recent years, there is still huge potential to improve their taste, texture and how they cook,” he said.
“More research funding is now needed to make these improvements a reality, ensuring manufacturers can make products that taste better, are healthier and provide consumers with sustainable options that are more likely to reduce demand for meat.”