As the popularity of plant-based diets rises, so too does the number of meat-substituting plant-protein foods. However, there are a lot of concerns about the lack of nutritional content in these items. A recent study conducted by researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology reveals that many Swedish meat alternatives advertise a high iron content, but the iron is in a form that the body cannot absorb.
Numerous large-scale studies have demonstrated the health benefits, including a lower incidence of age-related diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease, linked with a diet high in plant-based foods including root vegetables, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Less is known about the effects of consuming textured plant protein products on human health, however.
A group of researchers from Chalmers’ Division of Food and Nutrition Science has examined 44 plant-based alternatives to meat that are available in the Swedish market. Most of these items are made from soy or pea protein, but you may also find fermented soy products like tempeh and fungus protein isolates called mycoproteins.
Deficiencies in mineral intake can have negative effects on health. Phytates are a byproduct of protein extraction, which occurs naturally in beans and cereals and which increases their concentration when they are used to make meat alternatives. Phytates prevent mineral absorption in the intestine by combining with non-heme iron and zinc in the body’s necessary dietary minerals to generate insoluble compounds.
Women’s iron insufficiency is a global health concern. Ten percent to thirty-two percent of European women of childbearing age are impacted, and in Sweden, nearly one-third of all secondary school-aged females face this challenge. Women are also less likely to consume red meat, the primary source of easily absorbed iron in the digestive tract, and are more likely to have adopted a plant-based diet, relative to the rest of the population.
The food manufacturing sector urgently requires cutting-edge strategies. The quantity of iron that could be absorbed by the body from tempeh, which is prepared from fermented soybeans, was higher than that from the other meat alternatives. This made sense, since phytates are degraded by the bacteria used in the tempeh fermentation process. Mycoproteins stood out because they contained a high concentration of zinc but no absorption inhibitors. The researchers said we still don’t know how successfully our intestines disintegrate the cell walls of mycoprotein, or how that impacts nutrient absorption.
In order to make the change to sustainable food production, plant-based foods are crucial, and the market for meat alternatives is ripe for innovation. The food manufacturing sector must consider the nutritional content of its products, employ and optimize established process techniques like fermentation, and create innovative approaches to facilitating the body’s uptake of essential nutrients.