UK – Plant-based alternatives to animal protein are in vogue with sales of plant based meats and milk skyrocketing and threatening to dislodge meat and milk as the top sources of protein for human populations globally.
A new study, published in the Journal of Agricultura and Food Chemistry, is however casting doubt on the effectiveness of these alternatives in delivering the nutrition that animal proteins offer.
According to the study, fewer nutrients found in the plant proteins used to create meat alternatives, such as soybeans, are accessible by human cells compared to traditional animal proteins like chicken.
In the new study, the researchers compared the differences in human cell digestion between a plant-based protein model made of soy and wheat gluten and chicken in in an in vitro test.
The results showed that the plant-based substitute peptides were less water-soluble than that of chicken, making them harder for the human body to digest.
“Our work in using in vitro tests shows that plant-based meats provides many essential amino acids as required by human that may complement well in a balanced diet,” explained Dr. Osvaldo Campanella, study co-author, professor and the Carl E. Haas Endowed Chair in Food Industries at The Ohio State University.
“Whether the difference in peptide absorption will have much impact on health require further studies that incorporate in vivo research and eventually clinical trials.”
Since the plant-based craze took the world by storm, food innovators have been working on the improvement of protein nutrition from meat analogs in addition to texture and other organoleptic properties by changing formulations and processing conditions.
This new study however highlights the long way that food science still has in order to know exactly the fate of proteins in different types of meat analogs and their bioavailability in humans.
Increased hip fracture risk
“It [is] especially important for further research to better understand factors driving the increased risk in vegetarians, whether it be particular nutrient deficiencies or weight management, so that we can help people to make healthy choices.”
In another study, women who led a vegetarian lifestyle were found to have a higher risk of hip fractures than women who were described as ‘occasional’ meat eaters, pescatarians who eat fish but not meat and ‘regular’ meat eaters who consume meat at least five times a week.
The study of over 26,000 middle-aged UK women conducted by the University of Leeds reveals those who follow a vegetarian diet had a 33% higher risk of hip fracture compared to meat-eaters.
Among 26,318 women, 822 hip fracture cases were observed over roughly 20 years – that represented just over 3% of the sample population.
After adjustment for factors such as smoking and age, vegetarians were the only diet group with an elevated risk of hip fracture, the researchers concluded.
“Our study highlights potential concerns regarding risk of hip fracture in women who have a vegetarian diet,” observed lead author James Webster, a doctoral researcher from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds.
Webster stressed he isn’t ‘warning people to abandon vegetarian diets’ and emphasised that these can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on the choices made by the individual following that diet.
But noted that vegetarian diets often have lower intakes of nutrients that are linked with bone and muscle health, an observation that could support the earlier study about absorption of plant-based proteins by human cells.
The research team further found that the average BMI among vegetarians was slightly lower than the average among the regular meat eaters.
Lower BMI can indicate people are underweight, which can mean poorer bone and muscle health, and higher risk of hip fracture.
“It [is] especially important for further research to better understand factors driving the increased risk in vegetarians, whether it be particular nutrient deficiencies or weight management, so that we can help people to make healthy choices,” observed Webster.
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