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Plant-based meat alternatives are taking over the world, with the industry expected to be valued at USD 24.8 billion by 2030. Plant-based meats offer an alternative to individuals looking to either cut back or completely remove meat from their diets. Additionally, they may also be a more sustainable option for those looking to reduce their climate footprint.

The assumption is that these meal alternatives provide the body with much-needed nutrients. However, emerging research has found that many of these meat alternatives are not as healthy as their marketing teams claim them to be. In fact, a recent study has indicated that these meats may be preventing the body from absorbing certain essential minerals. 

Plant-Based Meats Affect Nutrient Absorption

In analyzing the growth of plant-based meat products, Swedish researchers noted that there are challenges regarding the nutritional value of these products. In a study published in Nutrients, a team of researchers analyzed 44 different meat substitutes sold in Sweden, with many of the products being made from soy and pea protein, but also including the fermented soy product tempeh and mycoproteins.

The researchers found that the body was missing out on necessary nutrients. The team noted a wide variation in nutritional content and how sustainable they can be from a health perspective,

“In general, the estimated absorption of iron and zinc from the products was extremely low. This is because these meat substitutes contained high levels of phytates, antinutrients that inhibit the absorption of minerals in the body.” – Cecilia Mayer Labba, study’s lead author. 

As Mayer Labba mentioned, phytates are anti-nutrients that can inhibit the body’s absorption of nutrients. Phytates are naturally found in beans and cereals. As the body is incapable of breaking down phytates, it binds to minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium when it passes through the gut. This then prevens them from being absorbed into the intestine. 

“Both iron and zinc also accumulate in protein extraction. This is why high levels are listed among the product’s ingredients, but the minerals are bound to phytates and cannot be absorbed and used by the body,’” says Mayer Labba.

Why does the body need iron?

Iron plays a vital role in the production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body. An iron deficiency can increase your risk of becoming anemic, which can come with its own host of complications if not managed properly.  

Women are most likely to be iron deficient due to their menstrual cycle, as well as pregnancy and childbirth. Ironically, women are also more likely to adopt plant-based diets or reduce their meat intake. 

Why does the body need zinc?

Zinc is responsible for strengthening your immune system and assisting with metabolic function. Zinc deficiency has been linked to a variety of health issues that include vision problems, diarrhea, and unplanned weight loss. 

Not all plant-based meats are created equal

You may be concerned about how plant-based meats affect your body’s absorption of nutrients. However, this fact isn’t true for all plant-based products. Per the study, the researchers noted that tempeh, made from fermented soybeans, differed from other meat alternatives when it came to the body’s absorption of iron. This is because the fermentation of tempeh uses microorganisms that break down phytates.

Meat substitutes | Longevity LIVEAlso, mycoproteins were found to have high zinc content without any potential absorption inhibitors. However, researchers are still working to decipher how our intestines can break down the cell walls of mycoprotein and how this may influence nutrient absorption. 

Nonetheless, despite their findings, Mayer Labba and her team still believe that plant-based meats can play a role in our lives, and it is rather about changing how the products are manufactured, as opposed to excluding them from our diets, 

“The industry needs to think about the nutritional value of these products and to utilize and optimize known process techniques such as fermentation, but also develop new methods to increase the absorption of various important nutrients”, says Mayer Labba.

Want to know more?

Plant-based meats aren’t the only products going under the microscope. One of the biggest health food trends is the rise of manufactured plant-based products, including plant-based milk. But are these manufactured plant-based products healthy?

References

Graça, J., Godinho, C., Truninger, M. (2019).  Reducing meat consumption and following plant-based diets: Current evidence and future directions to inform integrated transitions, Trends in Food Science & Technology, Volume 91, Pages 380-390, ISSN 0924-2244.

Mayer Labba, I.-C., Steinhausen, H., Almius, L., Bach Knudsen, K. E., & Sandberg, A.-S. (2022). Nutritional Composition and Estimated Iron and Zinc Bioavailability of Meat Substitutes Available on the Swedish Market. Nutrients14(19), 3903. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14193903

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba is a beauty and wellness writer who has a passion for poetry, equality, natural hair, and skin-care. With a journalism degree from Pearson's Institute of Higher Education, and identifiable by either her large afro or colorful locks, Pie aspires to continuously provide the latest information, be it beauty or wellness, on how one can adopt a healthy lifestyle on a day-to-day basis.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.

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