KEY POINTS

  • Researchers looked deeper into the nutrients found in real meat and plant-based alternatives
  • They found stark differences despite both having comparable nutrition labels
  • Real beef and its alternatives contained nutrients that were not present in the other

Are plant-based meat alternatives really interchangeable with real meat? A new analysis shows how different they can be.

Plant-based meat alternatives have become quite similar to real meat, even in terms of texture and "simulating bloodiness." Further, manufacturers have also incorporated important nutrients so they can be comparable to real meat.

At a quick glance, real meat and the alternatives may seem "essentially equivalent." However, there are some nutrients that are not listed on the labels, Duke University said in a news release.

For their study, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers took a deeper look at such products' nutritional content using a tool called "metabolomics." This allowed them to measure the metabolite profiles of 18 popular plant-based meat alternatives and 18 grass-fed ground beef samples from Idaho.

"Despite apparent similarities based on Nutrition Facts panels, our metabolomics analysis found that metabolite abundances between the plant-based meat alternative and grass-fed ground beef differed by 90% (171 out of 190 profiled metabolites; false discovery rate adjusted p < 0.05 )," the researchers wrote.

Specifically, the real beef had 22 metabolites that were not present in the plant-based products. The plant-based alternatives also had 32 metabolites that were not there in the meat, the release said.

For instance, important metabolites, including glucosamine and anti-oxidants allatonin, anserine and squalene, were found either "exclusively or in greater quantities" in meat. Other metabolites such as vitamin c, tyrosol and loganin were found either exclusively or in greater numbers in the plant-based alternatives.

"Large differences in metabolites within various nutrient classes (e.g., amino acids, dipeptides, vitamins, phenols, tocopherols, and fatty acids) with physiological, anti-inflammatory, and/or immunomodulatory roles indicate that these products should not be viewed as truly nutritionally interchangeable, but could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients," the researchers wrote.

Both meat and meat alternatives contain different sets of nutrients. So, the products' seemingly similar nutrition labels do not mean that they are "nutritionally equivalent." But even if they are quite different, both can provide nutrients that are beneficial to human health.

"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," research lead Stephan van Vliet, of Duke Molecular Physiology Institute, said. "Plant and animal foods can be complementary, because they provide different nutrients."

Beyond Meat "Beyond Burger" patties are one of the options for plant-based proteins, which now include chicken, shrimp and sausage alternatives Beyond Meat "Beyond Burger" patties are one of the options for plant-based proteins, which now include chicken, shrimp and sausage alternatives Photo: AFP / Angela Weiss