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Plant-based meat substitutes may be good sources of protein, but may not be as easily absorbed, new research suggests. Sophia Hsin/Stocksy
  • The researchers compared protein absorption between vegetable meat and chicken meat.
  • Protein absorption was higher for chicken meat than for vegetable meat.
  • The researchers concluded that the nutritional value of plant-based meats could be improved by modifying the formulation and production conditions.

In recent years, plant-based meats have become more common as a way to “enjoy the taste of meat” without harming animals or the environment.

Although the low fat and cholesterol levels of plant-based meats may help reduce obesity and the risk of cardiovascular disease, studies show that they may be less digestible than meats of animal origin.

Knowing more about how plant proteins are digested could help assess their feasibility as a primary source of dietary protein.

Recently, researchers compared the protein absorption of vegetable meat to that of chicken meat. They found that vegetable proteins were less absorbed during an in vitro digestion process than chicken proteins.

The study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

For the study, the researchers created a plant-based “chicken” meat from soy concentrate and wheat gluten. The final product had a protein content of 24.2%.

The vegetable meat was then cooked with chicken meat, ground to simulate the chewing process and passed through a 2.36mm sieve to avoid sample size induced effects on the digestion of both samples. .

The resulting “chunks of meat” then underwent various in vitro tests to model protein absorption during digestion.

From these tests, the researchers discovered that the water solubility of vegetable meats gradually increased during in vitro digestion, reaching around 8% after gastric digestion and then 14% at the end of intestinal digestion.

They did, however, find that the chicken peptides were consistently more water-soluble than the plant-based peptides.

Additionally, they noted that of the 110 peptides identified in plant meat, approximately 50% remained after the digestion process.

Meanwhile, of the more than 500 peptides identified in chicken meat, only 15% remained after digestion. This, they wrote, suggests that peptides from chicken are more easily absorbed than those from plant sources.

When asked what might explain why human cells absorb less protein from plant-based meats than from chicken, Dr. Da Chen, postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University and author of the study, said Medical News Today:

“Proteins undergo digestion before being taken up by human intestinal epithelial cells. After digestion, proteins mainly become peptides. It has been reported that the size and polarity of peptides are closely associated with their absorption.

“In our study, the peptides produced from the digestion of plant meats were larger [and less water soluble]causing them to pass through epithelial cells more slowly than chicken, resulting in lower absorption efficiency,” he explained.

Professor VM (Bala) Balasubramaniam, from the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University, who was not involved in the study, agreed.

“I agree with the author’s observation on this. As they noted, chicken meat protein exhibited better bulking ability, which helps promote digestive enzymes. Soy protein contains certain antinutrients (eg, phytates and tannins) that may limit protein hydrolysis [water solubility],” he said DTM.

“Additionally, structural differences between plant and animal foods can also influence how proteins are released,” he added.

David Julian McClements, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, who also was not involved in the study, noted that digestibility and absorption depend on several factors, including:

  • type of protein
  • protein denaturation
  • protein aggregation
  • food matrix effects
  • antinutritional factors
  • processing and cooking methods

He said that the results of this study may not apply to all plant-based meat comparisons.

An example of this is that wheat gluten is not water soluble and has more rigid structures than soy and chicken proteins, which makes it less digestible. Because the plant-based meat in this study was 28% wheat, these conclusions may not apply to plant-based meats made solely from soy.

The authors concluded that the nutritional value of plant-based meats could be improved by modifying the formulation and production conditions.

“When evaluating the quality of plant-based meat, not only texture but also protein nutrition should be considered,” said Dr. Da Chen. MNT.

“The results of the study are beginning to provide insight into how different plant and animal proteins influence human health. This will allow food processors to understand the benefits and limitations of different food processing technologies and ingredients. »
—Professor Balasubramaniam

Dr. Chen also pointed out that plant-based meats are still viable sources of protein.

“For consumers, plant-based meats would still provide valuable protein nutrition because they contain a good amino acid profile. Whether consumers should eat more plant-based meat in order to achieve equivalent nutrition is beyond the scope of this study as it depends on daily protein intake, which was not realized. “, did he declare.

Asked about the limitations of the study, Dr Chen said: “We only used soy/wheat protein as the main source of protein for the production of meat analogues, for those who manufacture with other different proteins or formulations, the results could be different.”

“Our study [also] used only by in vitro digestion, it may have some differences from that of in vivo digestion. Coming [studies] should focus more on clinical trials,” he added.

Still, Dr. McClements noted that this study, and others like it, are crucial. He said: “If we are going to replace animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives, we don’t want to have adverse effects on human nutrition and health.”

“Therefore, it is important to design plant-based foods to have similar or better nutrient profiles and digestibility/absorptive behavior than the animal-based foods they are intended to replace,” a- he concluded.