US study finds meat alternatives are ‘not nutritionally interchangeable’

A comparison of grass-fed meat and plant-based meat alternatives has found significant nutritional differences despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels.

The research, carried out by scientists at Duke University, North Carolina, was published this month in Nature journal Scientific Reports.

The study used untargeted metabolomics, the scientific study of chemical processes involved in metabolism, to provide an in-depth comparison of the metabolite profiles of a popular plant-based meat alternative and grass-fed ground beef matched for serving size (113g) and fat content (14g).

“Neither is good or bad – they are just not the same,” the authors told the university’s magazine Duke Today.

“To consumers reading nutritional labels, they may appear nutritionally interchangeable,” said Stephan van Vliet, a postdoctoral researcher at the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute who led the research.

But if you peek behind the curtain using metabolomics, and look at expanded nutritional profiles, we found that there are large differences between meat and a plant-based meat alternative.”

Despite apparent similarities based on Nutrition Facts panels, the metabolomics analysis found that metabolite abundances between plant-based meat alternatives and grass-fed ground beef differed by 90%.

Several metabolites were found either exclusively or in greater quantities in beef. Nutrients such as docosahexaenoic acid (ω-3), niacinamide (vitamin B3), glucosamine, hydroxyproline and the anti-oxidants allantoin, anserine, cysteamine, spermine, and squalene were amongst those only found in beef.

However, several other metabolites were found exclusively, or in greater quantities, in the plant-based meat alternative. Ascorbate (vitamin C), phytosterols, and several phenolic anti-oxidants such as loganin, sulfurol, syringic acid, tyrosol, and vanillic acid were amongst those only found in the plant-based meat alternative.

‘Different, but not better’

The researchers concluded the differences meant the products “should not be viewed as truly nutritionally interchangeable, but could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients”.

“These nutrients are important for our brain and other organs including our muscles,” van Vliet said.

“But some people on vegan diets [no animal products], can live healthy lives – that’s very clear.

“It is important for consumers to understand that these products should not be viewed as nutritionally interchangeable, but that’s not to say that one is better than the other,” said van Vliet.

Plant and animal foods can be complementary because they provide different nutrients.”

No funding was received to perform this work.