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There’s more to being vegan than plant-based meat. It’s not as healthy as you think

While there is no denying the obvious benefits of plant-based meats, a lot is blown out of proportion. We need a sharp eye to bust the myths.

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An increasing number of people around the world are becoming more inclined to eat a plant-based diet every day. Eating more plant-based foods is touted to be better for health, ethics, and climate. A variety of plant-based products are taking the food market by storm. Fake or mock plant-based meats are the new additions to our daily diet. Of course, these are better choices for the animals and the environment but what nutritional value do they bring to the plate? Plant-based meats are processed, industrially manufactured, and have their advantages and shortcomings that need attention before you make these your favourite substitutes for animal meats.

The global estimated value of the plant-based meat market was $4.3 billion in the year 2020 and is projected to reach $8.3 billion by 2025, with a growth of 14 per cent, according to a report by MarketsandMarkets. About 30 per cent of India’s population is vegetarian, as per recent census data. The rest 70 per cent are non-vegetarian but consume relatively low quantities of meat. This population is known as the ‘flexitarian’ – a group that generally eats a vegetarian diet with only occasional consumption of egg, meat, or fish. Even though most Indians eat a plant-based diet, the craze of fake meat is remarkable in the country. Various farm and startup ventures are producing plant-based substitutes to meat by using soy, beans, pulses, legumes, wheat, potatoes, etc.

Also Read: Indian veganism is a thing, and taking off. Especially in the pandemic

Let’s talk nutrition

Fake or plant-based meats mimic animal meat products and are used in making foods like burgers, sausages, ham, and meatballs. Most of the meat substitutes in the market include proteins from plant origins such as – soy, green peas, jack fruit, wheat gluten (seitan), legumes, beans, vegetable proteins, nuts, and seeds.

All in all, plant-based foods are healthy. The diet is a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre, and thus is proven to be beneficial in weight management, preventing heart diseases, reducing the risk of cancers, and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome balance. In fact, reputed health organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the American Heart Association advise that people eat more plant-based meat than animal meats for better health outcomes. Fake meats are low in fats, provide almost the same amount of protein as real meat products like ground beef, chicken, turkey, and taste just as good.  SWAP-MEAT, or The Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternatives Trial study,  2020, involved 36 participants who were advised to eat meat for eight weeks and then replaced the meat products with plant-based alternatives for another eight weeks. The authors reported significant improvements in multiple cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as reduced levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol among the participants.

However, it’s not a given that everything about plant-based meat is healthy, just because they are produced from plant sources.

Also Read: Meat-lover who wants to save the planet? 3D printed steaks are your solution

Processed meat is still processed

The quality of plant-based meats is under scanner as they are often highly processed, contain high amounts of sodium, vegetable oils, food colors, additives to fix the texture, and artificial flavors to bring the taste of real meat. They are mass-produced in the factory and so don’t stand out in terms of quality when compared to other industrially processed meat products. In a recent study, researcher Lisa Harnack and colleagues evaluated the nutritional quality of 37 plant-based mince products popular in the United States in 2019, to assess if plant-based mince could provide essential nutrients such as zinc, protein, vitamin B12, and sodium in comparison to ground beef. The study concluded that fake meats were lacking in vitamin B12 and contained 18 per cent more sodium than beef.

Not necessarily environment friendly 

According to an Observer Research Foundation article, nearly 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxides, are contributed by livestock. About 65 per cent of all domesticated emissions are contributed by beef and dairy alone. Scientists constantly warn that there will be a massive global food crisis unless humans change their methods of meat production and use of land.

There is no denying that most mock meats are linked to lesser emission of greenhouse gases than animal products and have a lesser impact on climate change and global warming. However, some plant-based substitutes, for example, those derived from soybeans, are not so eco-friendly. Industrial processing of soybean oil uses a chemical called Hexane, which is a potential neurotoxin and an air pollutant. Also, soybeans are often genetically modified (GM), and research has found that GM crops use more herbicides and negatively impact the agriculture ecosystem in the process.

Commenting on the two biggest mock meat brands from the US — Beyond and Impossible — Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, was quoted saying, “However, while their processed products have about half the carbon footprint that chicken does, they also have 5 times more of a footprint than a bean patty. So Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint but saying it’s the most climate-friendly thing to do — that’s a false promise.”

Also Read: Why plant-based diets are essential to our planet’s future

Being mindful while choosing mock meat

Read food labels while you shop or eat plant-based meat products. Choose a product that includes beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, is lower in sodium, and fortified with essential micronutrients. They should have no more than 10 per cent calories from saturated fats, no or minimal artificial colors, preservatives, and sugar in all forms. Whether you eat a strict vegan diet, animal diet, or both, you can still make poor dietary choices if you miss reading nutrition labels.

Plant-based meats are a welcome initiative to save the planet and animals, but not all are nutritious. An industrially processed plant protein-based burger patty fried in cottonseed oil is not a healthy option at all. If you want to go vegan, consume a diverse range of plant-based whole foods to ensure optimum consumption of crucial micronutrients and protein.

Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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