Better for body? Conventional red meat better source of essential proteins than plant-based analogues – RCT, experts

By Nurul Ain Razali

- Last updated on GMT

Amino acids from red meat had greater biological value and better absorbed by the body than highly-processed plant-based alternatives. ©Getty Images
Amino acids from red meat had greater biological value and better absorbed by the body than highly-processed plant-based alternatives. ©Getty Images

Related tags Red meat Nutrition plant-based Protein

Conventional red meat is a better source of protein and delivers more essential amino acids than plant-based alternatives, based on results from a New Zealand RCT.

The investigation explored the benefits of eating pasture-raised beef and lamb compared to grain-finished beef and plant-based meat alternatives, Beyond Burger and Beyond Meat, available at retail outlets.

The paper, titled “Plasma Amino Acid Appearance and Status of Appetite Following a Single Meal of Red Meat or a Plant-Based Meat Analog: A Randomized Crossover Clinical Trial”​, was published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition. It was conducted by scientists from AgResearch, the University of Auckland, Massey University and the Riddet Institute.

In this first of two clinical trials, scientists discovered that the blood nutrients of 29 participants aged between 20 to 34 differed between the intervention and control groups.

They were given breakfast on four different days and had their blood, digestive symptoms and mood monitored.

“We saw a significant difference in the types and amounts of amino acids from the digestion of the protein of red meat compared to the protein of the processed meat alternative. Amino acids from red meat were of greater biological value and better absorbed by the body. Our project showed that red meat is probably a better source of protein for the body than highly processed plant-based products promoted as meat alternatives,”​ said Dr Andrea Braakhuis, head of the RCT hailing from the University of Auckland.

At a glance

According to the paper​, the total amino acid content was greatest in lamb (11%), with little difference among the other meals. Essential amino acid content was also the greatest in lamb and least in the Beyond Burger. Amino acids like proline, hydroxyproline and glycine were significantly higher in plasma after consuming meat than Beyond products.

Hence, the scientists suggested that reliance on plant-based substitutes might have implications for overall diet quality if adopted on a grand scale. Meat analogues were designed to mimic the taste, smell, texture, and nutrition of meat. Still, the current examination showed that the bioavailability of their protein is lower compared to red meat.

The research was funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment National Science Challenge High-Value Nutrition; the Meat Industry Association Innovation Limited (a subsidiary of the New Zealand Meat Industry Association); and Beef and Lamb New Zealand Limited. 

A second clinical trial, expected to complete soon, looks at the longer-term impacts of eating a diet that includes moderate amounts of red meat. For 10 weeks, 80 participants are following either a flexitarian diet containing pasture-raised beef and lamb or a vegetarian diet with plant-based alternatives.

Problems with plant-based

Prof Paul Wood
Biotechnology expert Professor Paul Wood

Biotechnology professor at Monash University Paul Wood, who was not involved in the publication, reinforced the longstanding notion of animal products having more intense nutritional profiles. Proteins are not identical – plant proteins are deficient in several essential amino acids and nutrients. For instance, iron from meat is seven-fold of a plant-based alternative.

“If you think about how we make plant-based (alternatives), we deconstruct the plant and add the components back. There will be 20-odd components because you’ve got to add binders, vitamins and minerals. It is a highly-processed food,” ​he said.

Regarding sustainability, the cornerstone of plant-based firms, he noted that animal-based industries have also actually improved their practices. For instance, the Australian beef industry has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over 50% since 2005 and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2030.

Furthermore, Prof Wood claimed the hype stemmed from VCs wanting to build companies and increase share prices.

Such prices create issues of accessibility and affordability, especially when plant-based ‘beef’ and ‘milk’ are far more expensive than natural ones. It generally appeals to the niche middle class or wealthier people who can afford choice. He said they were not doing anything for burgeoning, developing communities of Asia or Africa.

“It annoys me when someone talks about this. Don’t claim you’re saving humanity if you’re actually not. We’re now looking at the first prosecutions in Europe among people who made claims on nutritional value. That’s one of the challenges of the future. A lot have made claims that they haven’t been able to substantiate, so these studies show that the problem has got to do with the quality and bioavailability of the proteins.

“Remember, there are 2 billion people who don’t get enough nutrition daily, and another 2 billion have overnutrition. It’s about affordability and accessibility,”​ concluded Prof Wood.

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