- A new study finds that you get more protein from meat than from vegetable products.
- But the difference was very small; nothing but about 2 percent difference was recorded.
- Experts say plant-based foods can provide many health benefits.
New research shows that the protein in meat alternatives made from wheat and soy may not be digested as well as chicken breast protein.
“We were not surprised,” Osvaldo H. Campanella, professor, Carl E. Haas Endowed Chair in Food Industries, Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University, told Healthline.
“In fact, we expected that the amino acid profiles would be different after the digestion of chicken meat and vegetable meat when looking at the different protein composition of these two sources,” he continued.
The study was recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Plant-based meat substitutes are often made with plants that are high in protein, which are dehydrated into a powder and mixed with spices.
This mixture is then heated, moistened and extruded to its final shape.
For this study, researchers created a model meat alternative made from soy and wheat gluten using the extrusion process.
Cooked bits of plant-based alternative and chicken meat were ground and broken down with an enzyme that humans use to digest food using “in vitro” (artificial environment such as a petri dish).
For the experiment, Campanella and team grew a layer of the human cell line that mimics the lining of the human gut in a dish divided into two chambers.
They then used enzymes from the stomach and small intestine to digest the meat alternative and cooked chicken breast before placing each digested food in the chamber of the shell containing the cell layer. To reach the second chamber of the shell, the digested food would first have to pass through the cell layer.
They then measured the amount of peptides that passed through the layer of intestinal cells and into the second chamber. This helped them estimate how much protein can be absorbed in the gut.
“Peptides found in our diets may be available naturally in the foods we eat or come from larger proteins that are broken down into peptides and amino acids by the digestive enzymes in the body,” explains Dani Rodriguez-Brindicci, MS, RDN, director out. Clinical Nutrition, Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California.
She added that peptides have many essential biological functions, such as anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
The team looked at the results after 1, 2 and 4 hours, which is generally the longest time it takes food to move through the small intestine.
They found that after 2 hours, about 8 percent of the chicken breast protein’s peptides had passed through the gut cells, compared to about 6 percent for the plant-based alternative. After 4 hours, it was about 23 percent to about 21 percent, respectively.
“U.S in vitro tests have shown that the essential amino acid profile of meat analogues after digestion and absorption is slightly worse than that of chicken,” said Campanella.
“Yet, the profile is appropriate and can complement a balanced and healthy human diet,” he confirmed.
“In our work, we used a base formulation that contains soy and wheat proteins,” says Campanella. “However, protein can be obtained from other legumes.”
He said these include navy beans, kidney beans, lima beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas and grain proteins, “which provide a variety of demonstrated nutritional benefits.”
According to Campanella, his team is working on these potential alternatives to find optimized formulations and processing conditions.
Their goal is “to obtain products with the desired organoleptic, nutritional properties and a competitive price,” he said.
Rodriguez-Brindicci said that while some plant-based meat alternatives can be highly processed and high in sodium and saturated fat, getting protein from whole, nutrient-dense plant foods like legumes, nuts, vegetables, seeds and grains has many long-term health benefits.
“First, plant proteins are very high in fiber compared to many animal proteins,” she said. “Its high fiber content can help lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar and reduce overall hunger.”
She added that whole plant proteins often contain less saturated fat and cholesterol than many animal proteins, which can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
According to Rodriguez-Brindicci, while plant-based meat alternatives have become an increasingly popular health and environmental trend, there are many misconceptions about the nutritional content of this “meatless meat.”
“In fact, a majority of these brands of plant-based meat alternatives have attracted customers by touting their products as nearly identical to animal protein,” she said. “While also being high in protein and low in saturated fat and cholesterol.”
However, she explained that to make these meat alternatives taste similar to animal products, “binders” are often used to hold plant proteins together and mimic the texture of meat.
These include xanthan gum, carrageenan, methylcellulose, food isolates and extracts added to the product.
Rodriguez-Brindicci cautioned that these additions make the food much less healthy than other meat alternatives made with completely plant-based foods such as beans, rice, mushrooms and vegetables.
“In addition, many of these processed meat alternatives can be high in sodium, and some are made with oils such as coconut oil or palm oil, which are high in saturated fat,” she said.
Rodriguez-Brindicci emphasized the importance of reading food labels on these products to decide whether the plant-based meat is a healthy choice or should be consumed in moderation.
A new study finds that plant-based meat proteins are not digested as well as chicken breast, although the difference is small.
Experts say that plant-based diets have many health benefits and that there are many plant-based protein sources to choose from.
They also say that we should carefully read the ingredient labels of meat alternatives to know if any additives have been used that may make the product less healthy.