Are plant-based meats low in protein?

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Are plant-based meats low in protein? GettyImages-DjelicS
Are plant-based meats low in protein? GettyImages-DjelicS

Related tags vegan plant-based plant-based meat Meat alternatives Protein

Meat-free alternatives to burgers, sausages and steaks have become popular in recent years as consumers look to reduce their meat consumption. But do these meat-free alternatives offer the same benefits as meat itself?

We’ve seen a growing trend towards plant-based and vegan diets in recent years, with consumers citing animal welfare, the environment and personal health as the primary reasons. But do these plant-based alternatives offer the same protein levels as the meat-based products they seek to emulate?

A new study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, published by ACS, has found that some plant-based steaks and cold cuts are lacking in protein.

The plant-based industry as a whole is relatively new and, as a result of this, has had little research conducted on it with regards to the effects on the human body. However, as plant-based alternatives to meat are becoming more widely consumed, research into them is increasing.

In particular, it’s important to understand how plant-based meat alternatives differ nutritionally from the meats they aim to replicate and replace and how well our bodies digest and gain nutrition from them.

Researchers Tullia Tedeschi and her colleagues sought to understand this by comparing the protein quality, integrity, and digestibility of a set of plant-based steaks and cold cuts to their meat counterparts.

Plant-based meat - GettyImages-Marko Jan
Are plant-based meats low in protein? GettyImages/Marko Jan

Is plant-based meat low in protein?

The team, based in Italy, analysed three different plant-based steaks and three different plant-based cold cuts. Veal steaks were used as a comparison point for the plant-based steaks, and ham and beef cold cuts were used as a comparison to their cold cut substitutes.

The fat, salt and protein content of each was measured, then the samples underwent simulated digestion in the lab, to understand how well the proteins break down in a human’s digestive tract.

The study found that the plant-based meat alternative products contained less protein and reduced amino acid content than their meat-based counterparts.

It also found that the plant-based meat alternative products contained more carbohydrates than the meats they are imitating. This is to be expected as many plants, including those used in plant-based meat alternatives, such as potatoes, sweetcorn and peas, are high in carbohydrates.

Interestingly, plant-based steaks were found to be comparable to the veal samples in terms of essential amino acid content and digestibility. This is a positive result and could mean that amending the formulations of plant-based meat alternatives could provide comparable essential amino acid profiles to certain types of meats.

Plant-based cold cuts were found to generally contain less salt than the meat-based cold cuts. However, these were also found to contain fewer essential amino acids. Different products also showed differing levels of digestibility due to the variety of ingredients they contain.

The study concluded that overall, the nutritional value of the plant-based products depended greatly on the plants used to create them, causing wide variation in their amino acid content and the digestibility of their proteins.

Plant-based meat alternative results may vary

The research team did not specify exactly which products they purchased to complete the study. It's important to recognise therefore that different products may produce different results and protein levels of plant-based meat alternatives could be higher depending on the product and brand.

Another recent study​, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, assessed ultra-processed plant-based burgers sold in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Lisbon and London. Findings were mixed. However, the plant-based burgers were found to be a source of protein, dietary fibre and essential minerals. 

Plant-based diet - GettyImages-Magda Tymczyj
Are plant-based meats low in protein? GettyImages/Magda Tymczyj

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

Though the study, published by ACS, found plant-based meat alternatives to be lower in protein when compared to meat, there are benefits to a plant-based diet and required protein can be found in other foods. Foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes and oats are all natural sources of protein.

Additionally, non-vegans can also consume eggs, which provide a rich source of protein, vitamins including vitamins A, B5, B12, B2 and Selenium, and contain antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. In fact, according to nutritionist Kris Gunnars, “eggs are one of the few foods that should be classified as ‘superfoods’.”

Plant based diets have also been linked to a multitude of health benefits, including the prevention of chronic diseases in women​, reducing the risk of developing type two diabetes​ and aiding weight loss​.

Source: Assessment of Protein Quality and Digestibility in Plant-Based Meat Analogues
Published online: 1 April 2024
DOI: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jafc.3c08956
Authors: Sara Cutroneo, Barbara Prandi, Nicoletta Pellegrini, Stefano Sforza, Tullia Tedeschi 

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