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Are plant-based meat alternatives ‘real alternatives’?

  • by JW

“For a bigger transformation in the long-term we still need to move beyond the single food focus and change whole dietary habits and our food culture.” [Cambridge Global Food Security]


Some four years ago, these pages asked if we were reaching “peak meat” – in the context of keeping climate gasses at bay. Last year the question gained ground as to whether “meat-free will save the planet” – together with the backlash over ‘banning meat’ in schools and councils. In the meantime, there has been growing debate around plant-based meat alternatives – and their wider impact.

Cambridge University’s Global Food Security research centre asks whether plant-based meat alternatives are a nutritionally sound alternative to meat. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs:

Plant-based meat alternatives are marketed as a direct replacement of meats, but a new study from Chalmers University, Sweden, puts this into question. The study examined the nutritional composition of many plant-based meat alternatives and found that most of these foods are far from their meat counterparts in important nutrients from meat, particularly red meat, such as iron and zinc. Even among the products with a higher content of iron and zinc, the minerals may not be absorbed by the gut because these foods also contain high amount of phytate, a so-called “antinutrient,” that chelates with iron and zinc and inhibits absorption. This leaves us with the question of whether plant-based meat alternatives are real alternatives? There are and they aren’t. Here’s why:

From a nutritional point of view, many plant-based meat alternatives are not a 1-to-1 alternative to meat. However, in populations with a high intake of meat and adequate iron status, they may not need to be – provided that the nutrients such as iron and zinc are provided from other foods in the diet. This caveat sheds light on the bigger issue pervasive in many Western food environments: they are not built to improve population and planetary health. Thus, plant-based meat alternatives can be a step in the right direction, replacing some meat products with plant-based products. However, for a bigger transformation in the long-term we still need to move beyond the single food focus and change whole dietary habits and our food culture.

These issues are undergoing a huge amount of academic research, with one paper recently looking at Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Technological, Nutritional, Environmental, Market, and Social Challenges and Opportunities; and another asking Are plant-based alternatives healthier? A two-dimensional evaluation from nutritional and processing standpoints – ScienceDirect.

We can expect much more such research – which will be fed into and no doubt devoured by the wider popular media.