The Hidden Dangers of Plant-Based Meat Substitutes


A plant-based diet is one that focuses primarily on foods derived from plants, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. A plant-based diet can be tailored to meet individual needs and preferences, and may include some animal products in moderation, or be entirely vegan or vegetarian.

Plant-based diets have been linked to a range of health benefits, including reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers. This is because plant-based diets tend to be rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and lower in saturated fats, cholesterol, and processed foods.

However, it’s important to note that not all plant-based diets are healthy. Processed and high-fat plant-based foods, such as vegan cheese and desserts, can be just as unhealthy as their animal-based counterparts. It’s also possible to develop nutrient deficiencies on a poorly planned plant-based diet, particularly in the areas of protein, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc.

Overall, a well-planned plant-based diet can be a healthy and sustainable option for individuals and the planet. It’s important to focus on whole, minimally processed foods, and to ensure adequate intake of essential nutrients. It may also be necessary to supplement with certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, to ensure optimal health.

There are many different types of vegetarian diets, each with its own variations and nuances. Here are some common vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This diet includes dairy products and eggs, but excludes meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: This diet includes dairy products, but excludes eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: This diet includes eggs, but excludes dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.
  • Vegan: This diet excludes all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Vegans also avoid products that are made from animals, such as leather and honey.
  • Raw vegan: This diet is similar to a vegan diet, but all foods are consumed in their raw and unprocessed state. This means that foods are not heated above a certain temperature, typically around 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fruitarian: This diet consists primarily of fruits, nuts, seeds, and other plant-based foods that can be harvested without killing the plant. Some fruitarians also include vegetables and grains in their diet.
  • Macrobiotic: This diet is based on the principles of traditional Japanese cuisine and emphasizes whole grains, beans, and vegetables. It also includes small amounts of fish and seafood, and may occasionally include other animal products.

Plant-based meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers and sausages, have gained popularity in recent years as a healthier and more sustainable alternative to traditional meat products.

While they can be a good source of protein and may have lower levels of saturated fat than traditional meat products, there are some hidden dangers associated with consuming these products.

  • Highly Processed: Plant-based meat substitutes are often highly processed and may contain a range of additives and preservatives. Some of these additives, such as high levels of salt, can be harmful to health.
  • Allergens: Many plant-based meat substitutes contain common allergens such as soy, wheat, and pea protein, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.
  • Nutrient Deficiencies: Plant-based meat substitutes may not provide all of the essential nutrients that the body needs, such as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. While some products are fortified with these nutrients, not all are, and it can be challenging for vegans and vegetarians to get enough of these nutrients from their diets.
  • Environmental Concerns: While plant-based meat substitutes may be more sustainable than traditional meat products in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land use, they still require significant resources to produce, and some environmental advocates argue that they are not a sustainable long-term solution to the global demand for protein.

Overall, plant-based meat substitutes can be a healthy and sustainable addition to the diet when consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet. However, it’s important to be aware of the potential drawbacks and to choose products that are minimally processed and fortified with essential nutrients.

Vegan meat substitutes are plant-based alternatives to traditional meat products that have become increasingly popular in recent years. There are many different types of vegan meat, including burgers, sausages, chicken, and even seafood, all made from a variety of plant-based ingredients. Here’s a general overview of how vegan meat is made:

  • Protein: Vegan meat substitutes are typically made from plant-based protein sources, such as soy, wheat, peas, or mushrooms. The protein is often isolated and extracted from the plant material to create a concentrated protein powder.
  • Flavorings: To mimic the taste of meat, vegan meat substitutes often include a range of flavorings and seasonings, such as salt, spices, and yeast extract.
  • Texturizers: Vegan meat products may also include texturizers, such as starches or gums, to give them a meat-like texture and chewiness.
  • Oils: Many vegan meat substitutes contain oils, such as coconut or canola oil, to add moisture and richness to the product.
  • Binders: Binders, such as methylcellulose or carrageenan, are often added to vegan meat products to help them hold together and maintain their shape during cooking.
  • Colorings: To mimic the color of meat, vegan meat substitutes may also contain natural or artificial colorings, such as beet juice or caramel.

The exact process and ingredients used to make vegan meat will vary depending on the specific product and manufacturer. Some companies use more whole food ingredients, while others rely on highly processed and isolated ingredients.

While vegan meat substitutes can be a convenient and tasty way to transition to a plant-based diet, it’s important to be aware of the potential drawbacks and to choose products wisely. Look for products that are minimally processed and made from whole food ingredients, and be sure to read labels and ingredient lists carefully. Choosing whole food alternatives, like tofu or tempeh, may be a better choice for those who want to avoid highly processed foods.

Ultra-processed plant-based foods

Notwithstanding the health benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods, not all plant-based diets are healthy. While such diets are typically characterized in terms of the proportion of plant-based foods they contain relative to animal foods, little consideration may be given to the types and quality of the plant foods concerned. It is common to associate plant-based diets with health- ful, whole and minimally processed plant foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. However, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages, snacks and confectionery are foods that can still be considered “plant-based” as they or their ingredients originate from plants and may be free from animal products.

Modern plant-based diets may also include ultra-processed foods.27 These include imitation processed “meats” (including products marketed as sausages, nuggets and burgers), beverages (for example, almond and oat “milk”), and plant-based “cheese” and “yoghurt”.

Ultra-processed foods, as defined by the NOVA classification system, are formulations of substances derived from whole foods, such as starches, sugars, fats and protein isolates, with little, if any, whole food, and often with added flavours, colours, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives to improve shelf-life, palatability and visual appeal.

Consequently, there are significant knowledge gaps in the nutritional composition of such meat and dairy substitutes, while the extent of their contri- bution to contemporary diets in many countries in the European Region is unclear.27

In addition, further research is needed to investigate the yet-unknown health impacts of the food additives and by-products formed during industrial processing of such plant-based “meats”.

Plant-based foods are increasingly becoming part of the growing out-of-home meal sector in the WHO European Region – a growing sector that includes food and beverage outlets where food and drink can be bought for consumption outside the home.

A 2020 study found that plant- based meals produced in the out-of-home sector can contain high amounts of salt.28 There are, however, significant gaps in our understanding of the links between plant-based diets, out-of- home meals and nutritional quality.

NCD prevention and plant-based diets

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are chronic conditions that are not caused by infectious agents, and are typically of long duration and slow progression. Examples of NCDs include cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks and strokes), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma), and diabetes.

These diseases are often caused by factors such as unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco and alcohol use, and environmental factors such as air pollution.

NCDs are responsible for 71% of all premature deaths (41 million deaths a year) globally.2 Of these, 80% are due to the four most common NCDs: cardiovascular diseases account for 17.9 million deaths, followed by cancers (9 million), chronic respiratory diseases (3.9 million) and dia- betes mellitus (1.6 million). Of the six WHO regions, the European Region has the greatest burden of NCD-related morbidity and mortality, at almost 90% of all deaths.

Overweight and obesity are a major NCD risk factor and affect over 59% of adults and 29% of children in the European Region. Globally, one in every five deaths in adults is associated with unhealthy diet.

Low fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to poor health and increased risk of NCDs. Recent studies have shown that high fruit and vegetable intake is associated with lower risks of heart disease and stroke.4,5

WHO recommends consuming at least 400 g (five portions) of fruits and vegetables (excluding potatoes and other starchy tubers) per day. There is large variation in fruit and vegetable intake across Europe. In more than half of the countries in the WHO European Region, consumption of fruits and vegetables is lower than 400 g per day, and in one third of the countries (particularly those in eastern Europe), the average intake is less than 300 g per day.6,7

Cardiovascular disease causes more than half of all deaths across the European Region. Overall, evidence suggests that vegetarian and vegan diets have a protective effect against cor- onary heart disease,8,9,10,11 but increased risk of stroke has been reported in recent analyses.10

The strongest association found so far between diet and cancer risk is for bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer). Frequent consumption (four or more portions per week) of pro- cessed meat and unprocessed red meat has been found to increase the risk of bowel cancer.12 However, calcium – mainly from dairy products – offers some protection against colorectal cancer.13,14 Vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians have been found to have a lower risk for all cancers compared to non-vegetarians.15

According to the World Cancer Research Fund, diets that reduce the risk of cancer contain no more than modest amounts of red meat and little or no processed meat.16

Diabetes is inextricably linked to obesity rates since a high body mass index (BMI) is the most critical risk factor. Various studies have found that vegetarians and vegans generally have a lower BMI than otherwise comparable non-vegetarians.17,18 Research suggests that low meat and non-meat eaters have a lower risk of diabetes, largely because of their lower BMI.19 However, it should be noted that non-meat eaters generally have healthier lifestyles than meat eaters.

Taken together, the beneficial effects of plant-based diets, including the protection they offer against premature mortality, provide strong evidence for public health guidelines recommending healthful plant-based diets as a means to prevent and control NCDs.20,21,22,23,24

Macro- and micronutrient intake in plant-based diets

There are some concerns about the nutritional adequacy of plant-based diets, particularly vegan diets which exclude all forms of animal foods in their entirety. While the absorption and avail- ability of specific micronutrients (such as iron, vitamin A and zinc) may be lower in plant than animal foods, obtaining recommended levels of these micronutrients can still be achieved with an appropriately planned vegan diet that includes a variety of different plant foods.25

As for other micronutrients such as vitamin D and vitamin B12, which are mostly found in animal sources, vegans may consider the consumption of fortified foods and – in the specific case of vitamin D – adequate sun exposure. Accordingly, individuals who consume a vegan diet should remain aware of potential micronutrient insufficiencies. Vegan diets generally meet protein intake recommen- dations, though they are usually lower in this respect than less restrictive forms of plant-based diets. However, it should be noted that current research in this area is based on a small number of cohort studies.

According to a systematic review, vegan diets are typically associated with relatively low intakes of vitamins B2, B12, D, iodine, zinc, calcium and selenium.26 Intake of vitamin B12 (important for several bodily functions including a healthy nervous system) was found to be significantly lower in vegans.

The review found that vegan diets are characterized by lower consumption of saturat- ed fat and higher consumption of beneficial unsaturated fat. It also found that such diets are not associated with a risk of insufficient intake of vitamins A, B1, Β6, B9 (folate), C, E, iron, phospho- rus, magnesium or copper in adult populations.

resource : Document number: WHO/EURO:2021-4007-43766-61591


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