Protein from plant-based meat alternatives doesn’t appear to be absorbed by the gut as well as protein from chicken meat, according to a new study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
High in protein but low in undesirable fats, plant-based meat alternatives are often touted as a healthier alternative to the real deal. True as that may be, the new research suggests that the body may have a harder time absorbing the proteins from meat alternatives compared to a piece of chicken.
Researchers from Ohio State University grew human gut cells in a petri dish and analyzed the cellular uptake of the peptides (the "building blocks" of proteins) when faced with chicken meat and a substitute made with soy and wheat protein. Cooked pieces of substitute and chicken meat were added to the cell cultures after being ground up and broken down with a digestive enzyme found in the human gut.
Their tests showed that peptides from the meat alternative were less water-soluble than those from chicken and were not absorbed as well by human cells.
Clearly, this is a hugely simplified model, lacking many of the complexities of a real human gut, so any conclusions should be drawn with caution. The study authors write that future research should look at whether these results can be repeated within living, breathing organisms, not merely a few cells in a glass dish.
Caveats aside, the findings of the study clearly imply that less protein is absorbed through the gut wall into our bloodstream from meat alternatives compared to poultry.
The market for plant-based imitation meat has boomed in recent years. One survey found that 65 percent of people in the US have consumed plant-based meat alternatives in the past year, while 2 in 5 of them eat it daily or weekly. It’s a trend that’s only set to continue, with some experts predicting that almost all “meat” will be meat-free or lab-grown by 2040.
There are many reasons for this growing popularity, ranging from environmental concerns to ethical and religious considerations, but one of the most regularly cited motives for switching to meat alternatives is health.
Compared to real meat, plant-based alternatives tend to have less saturated fat and cholesterol. They also contain fiber, which meat does not. On the flip side, they can have higher levels of sodium, plus other undesirable stuff like preservatives and artificial additives.
As this new research highlights, it’s also not certain whether the protein from soy-based meat alternatives is as good for you as real meat, but further research needs to be done.