More misleading headlines

| 9 July 2021
minute reading time
Two burgers

This week news headlines declared that “Plant-based meat not nutritionally equivalent to real meat, finds study” implying that plant-based meat alternatives are nutritionally inferior to meat. We looked at the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, and spoke to the lead author and this is not what they found at all.

The Duke University press release has a different headline: “Metabolomics lab’s analysis finds near-meat and meat not nutritionally equivalent – neither is good or bad, they are just not the same.” So, the headline could just have easily said: “Real meat not nutritionally equivalent to plant-based meat.”

The researchers from Duke University in the US compared 18 cooked samples of a plant-based meat alternative with 18 cooked samples of grass-fed beef purchased from a ranch in Idaho. Although an estimated 97 per cent of cattle slaughtered for meat in the US are fed grains, they chose to look at grass-fed beef because, they said, like plant-based “beef” it is often considered healthier and more environmentally-friendly. They didn’t name the plant-based meat alternative, but the Nutrition Facts panel and some other information provided suggest that it was probably the soya-based Impossible Burger.

They found that while beef contained 22 metabolites (chemical compounds) that the plant-based burger did not, the plant-based burger contained 31 metabolites not found in meat.

The omega-3 fat DHA, vitamin B3, glucosamine, hydroxyproline and some antioxidants (allantoin, anserine, cysteamine, spermine and squalene) were amongst those only found in beef. Vitamin C, phytosterols and several other antioxidants (loganin, sulfurol, syringic acid, tyrosol and vanillic acid) were amongst those only found in the plant-based meat alternative.

They concluded that plant-based and beef burgers are not interchangeable just as “a peanut is not an egg.” They also say that they can’t determine which is healthier from this study. Lead researcher Dr Stephan van Vliet said: “…some people on vegan diets (no animal products), can live healthy lives – that’s very clear.”

Viva! Health recommends a varied vegan diet to ensure you get a good supply of the nutrients you need. It’s not advisable to eat lots of processed foods as they tend to contain relatively high levels of fat and salt which can increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease (which both occur at much lower levels in vegans). Healthy alternatives to meat might include tofu, tempeh, falafel, nut burgers etc. See the Vegan Recipe Club for inspiration.

Perhaps the main difference when comparing meat and plant-based foods is that the vegan alternatives are not linked to cancer in the same way as red and processed meat.

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
I joined Viva! as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. My scientific training helped me research and write numerous reports, guides and fact sheets for Viva! including Meat the Truth, Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy; White Lies. This accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming. We were the first UK group to take on the dairy industry in this way, and many of our supporters go vegan after reading these reports.

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