You may have heard the expression “knowledge is power.” Well – today – we’re going to give you more power to control your diet and lifestyle – by giving you the facts. Welcome to the Nutrition Facts podcast. I’m your host – Dr. Michael Greger.
You can’t help but marvel at the constellation of new consumer choices in the dairy and meat aisle, helping to innovate us out of our precarious situation with regards to the pandemic threats posed by animal agriculture.
Today, we’re going to look at personal – human effects of plant-based meats. And we start with the environmental assessment of 50 different plant-based meats, showing them to be vastly more sustainable.
“There is increasing consensus that transitioning towards reduced meat consumption and more plant-based diets is a key feature to addressing important health and sustainability challenges” facing humanity.
According to the United Nations, we would “have to double the production of meat and dairy to meet the predicted demand [for] animal proteins in 2050,” when, in fact, we’d have to do the exact opposite if we were to contain the ecological damage. “[N]early every credible forecast shows that if we’re to have any chance of meeting future food in a sustainable fashion, lowering our meat consumption will be absolutely essential.”
While more centralized governments may be effective in influencing consumption patterns, since the main drivers of global meat consumption are things like rising incomes, urbanization, and Western culture, “the main identified drivers of meat demand are difficult to influence through direct policy intervention.” Thus, we have to take our case directly to the consumer; but information and education may not be enough. We may need the increased availability of ready-made plant-based products.
Too often, “ethics and sustainability alone does not stand much of a chance in a world of consumers.” “Many consumers seem deaf to ethical arguments,” which may be quickly forgotten when it comes down to buying food. When it comes to consumer-perceived barriers to following a plant-based diet, the largest barrier may simply be meat appreciation. People enjoy the taste of meat. So, in practice, if we want people to shift over to plant-based options, “the taste, structure, and nutritional value of vegetarian meals could be developed to more closely follow the preferences of meat eaters.” I mean, no point in designing a veggie burger for vegetarians—they’re already not eating meat. So, when Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods, his goal was to create something “a burger-lover would say is better than any burger they’ve ever had.” Or, the Beyond Burger created by Beyond Meat, a company founded to tackle climate change by creating plant-based products that were “Juicy, Meaty and Delicious.”
But how much better are they for the climate? Both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger have had environmental lifecycle assessments published by reputable groups. I did a little piece for the Swiss investment firm UBS summarizing the results, and, indeed, switching to either drops greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water footprints down about 90 percent.
Similar analyses have been done on more than 50 different plant-based meats. All such studies found them to be vastly more sustainable, with no real diﬀerences in greenhouse gas emissions observed between the diﬀerent sources of protein they used, whether it’s wheat or soy or whatever––though, obviously, any products containing egg binders would be significantly worse.
Now, of course, if you went straight to the unprocessed peas and soybeans from which the Beyond and Impossible Burgers are made, you could get not just a 90 percent lower impact, but like a 99 percent lower impact. But that impact drops to zero if no one is willing to eat it.
A review on consumer research of meat substitutes found that although things like health and environment can persuade consumers to try a meat substitute, it’s the “appearance and taste…that are crucial factors for their consumption on a regular basis.” Interestingly, these days plant-based foods may actually have a leg up. If you give college students actual animal-based chocolate milk, mac and cheese, chicken tenders, and meatballs, but lie to them and tell them they’re actually made from plants, surprisingly and unexpectedly, the researchers found that when “subjects tasted the food and rated how much they liked the taste, those who were told the food was vegan liked the food signiﬁcantly better than did those who were told the [truth].” Just “thinking a food was vegan actually increased liking for the taste of that food.” Other demographics may have a different reaction, though, in which case there’s always sustainability by stealth, using blended products that substitute out some of the animal protein for plant protein. In the last year, such hybrid products have made a promising entrance––so much so that major meat producers, Perdue and Tyson, are bragging about the incorporation of plant protein into their blended products.
In our next story, we look at what happens when you compare the trans fats, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol levels in plant-based versus animal-based burgers?
Global meat production has skyrocketed over the last half century, with pork and poultry meat now exceeding 100 megatons a year––a hundred million tons––and this growing demand is unsustainable. The reduction of animal products is “…arguably [one of] the most impactful ways in which [individual] consumers can alter their diets to positively impact individual and societal well-being.” And, there’s definitely growing interest in plant-based diets and meat reduction. But even just something like meatless Mondays requires dietary change, and sadly “…neither sustainability or health approaches are likely to work with those who [love their meat].” But swapping in plant-based meat substitutes may help kind of disrupt the negativity about reducing meat––but for hardcore meat-eaters, it’s gotta taste like it and look like it.
It’s interesting; the more people consume meat substitutes, the less likely they are to care that it has a similar taste, texture, appearance, or smell of meat. But to appeal to those who really need them, the meatier the better. This has certainly been accomplished with the spate of new products on the market, with all studies agreeing that they’re healthier for the planet. But what about healthier for us?
Comparing labels of the burgers and looking at four of the worst components of the food supply—trans fats, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol—the plant-based burgers win hands down when it comes to trans fat and cholesterol. We all know trans fats as a serious potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, but it’s also been recently associated with symptoms of depression, lower testosterone in men—even at just 1 percent of calories—and dementia. Higher levels of trans fat in the blood is associated with up to a 50 percent higher risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Now that partially hydrogenated oils have been phased out of the food supply, the only major source of trans fats left will be from animal products.
What’s the tolerable upper daily intake level for trans fat? An upper limit was not set for trans fat by the Institute of Medicine, because any incremental increase in trans fat intake increases the risk of heart disease, the #1 killer of men and women––as in any intake above zero. Because trans fatty acids are unavoidable in diets that contain meat and dairy, consuming zero trans fat “…would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake.” One of the authors of the report from Harvard’s Nutrition Department offered a memorable explanation for why the Institute of Medicine panel didn’t cap it at zero. “We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and all dairy products,” he said. “Well, we could tell people to become vegetarians,” he added. “If we were truly basing this only on science we would, but it is a bit extreme.”
We wouldn’t want scientists to base anything on science now, would we? No…
But anyways, that’s a big advantage, and of course, no hormones, no antibiotics, hasn’t been designated as probably cancer-causing by the World Health Organization, and on and on.
Now, I’m not happy with the added salt, which is about a quarter of the American Heart Association’s 1500 mg daily upper sodium limit, or the saturated fat, thanks to added coconut oil, but these do seem to be outliers. In the largest study of the nutritional value of plant-based meats to date, saturated fat levels of similar products only average about 2 grams per serving––much better than the animal-based equivalents. Sodium remains a problem throughout the sector though, like nearly any other processed food out there.
How processed are these products? Well, if you look at the fiber content, for example. Yes, to see any fiber in a burger is a good thing, but compare that to a whole food. If you ate the same amount of protein from yellow peas, for example, the primary plant protein in Beyond Burger, there’d be almost no saturated fat or sodium, and a whopping 20 grams of fiber. So yes, processing plants, in a processing plant, can eliminate 90 percent of the fiber, but processing plants through animals eliminates 100 percent of the fiber.
So, of course, as the chair of Harvard’s nutrition department put it, “Nutrition policies and dietary guidelines should continue to emphasize a diet rich in [whole plant] foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes or pulses, which are rich in protein and many other nutrients but require little industrial processing.” But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Not everyone can go all kale and quinoa overnight. It’s a no-brainer.
Finally today, what are the different impacts of plant protein versus animal protein, and do the benefits of plant proteins translate to plant protein isolates?
So, are these plant-based burgers healthy or not? And the answer is…compared to what? Eating is kind of a zero-sum game; every food has an opportunity cost. I mean, every time we put something in our mouth, it’s a lost opportunity to put something even healthier in our mouth. So, if you want to know if something is healthy, you have to compare it to what you’d be eating instead. So, for example, are eggs healthy? Compared to a breakfast link sausage? Yes! But compared to oatmeal? Not even close. But look – sausage is considered a group 1 carcinogen. In other words, we know consumption of processed meat causes cancer. Each 50-gram serving a day––that’s a single breakfast link––was linked to an 18 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer. So, the risk of getting colorectal cancer eating one link a day is about the same as the increased risk of lung cancer you’d get breathing second-hand smoke all day living with a spoking spouse. So, compared to sausage, eggs are healthy, but compared to oatmeal, eggs are not.
So, when it comes to Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, yeah, they may be better in that they have less saturated fat, but, hey, you want less saturated fat? Plant-based meat alternatives are no match for unprocessed plant foods, such as beans or lentils. And a bean burrito or lentil soup could certainly fill the same culinary niche as a lunchtime burger. But if you are going to have some kind of burger, it’s easy to argue that the plant-based versions are healthier. There is a sodium issue, and it’s not that much, if any, lower in saturated fat, since they use coconut oil, which is basically just as bad as animal fat. There’s not much advantage on that front.
Though the total protein is similar across the board, does this matter? Is there any advantage to eating plant protein over animal protein? Let’s look at the association between animal and plant protein intake and mortality. In the twin Harvard cohorts, following more than 100,000 men and women over decades, “…after adjusting for other dietary and lifestyle factors, animal protein intake was associated with a higher risk [of] mortality, particularly [dying from cardiovascular disease], whereas higher plant protein intake was associated with [a] lower all-cause mortality”, meaning a lower risk of dying from all causes put together. So, “replacing animal protein of various origins with plant protein was associated with lower mortality”––especially if you’re replacing processed meat and egg protein, which were the worst. But when it comes to living a longer life, plant protein sources beat out each and every animal protein source. Not just better than bacon and eggs, but better than burgers, chicken, turkey, fish, and dairy protein.
Together with other studies, these “findings support the importance of protein sources for the long-term health outcome and suggest that plants constitute a preferred protein source compared [to] animal foods.” Why? Well, unlike animal protein, plant protein has not been associated with increased levels of the cancer-promoting growth hormone IGF-1, for example. Now, soy protein is similar enough to animal protein that at high enough doses, like eating two Impossible Burgers a day, you may bump your IGF-1. But the only reason we care about IGF-1 is cancer risk, and if anything, higher soy intake is associated with a decreased risk of cancer. For example, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that soy protein intake was associated with a decreased risk in breast cancer mortality; we’re talking “a 12 percent reduction in breast cancer death [associated with] each 5-gram-a-day increase in soy protein intake.” But the high soy groups in these studies were on the order of more than 16 grams a day, associated with a whopping 62 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer. More than 10 grams of soy protein a day may be good, associated with cutting breast cancer mortality risk nearly in half, and getting more than 16 grams a day may be better, which is like one Impossible Burger a day. But we simply don’t know what happens at consumption levels far above that.
Plant protein has also been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced LDL cholesterol, and improved insulin sensitivity. No wonder “substitution of plant protein for animal protein has been related to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.” Indeed, 21 different studies following nearly a half million people, and “high… animal protein intakes [were] associated with an increased risk of [type 2 diabetes], whereas [even just] moderate plant protein intake is associated with a decreased risk of [type 2 diabetes].” Okay, but these were just observational studies. They all tried to control for other dietary and lifestyle factors, but you can’t prove cause and effect, until you put it to the test.
The “Effect of Replacing Animal Protein with Plant Protein on [blood sugar] Control in Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Even just switching out about a third of your protein from animal to plant sources yielded significant improvements in long-term blood sugar control, fasting blood sugars, and insulin.
You can do the same thing looking at cholesterol. Here’s a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on the effect of plant protein on blood fats. And indeed, swapping in plant protein for animal protein decreases LDL cholesterol, and this benefit occurs whether you start out at high cholesterol or low cholesterol, whether you’re swapping out dairy, or meat and eggs, and whether you’re swapping in soy or other plant proteins.
We’ve known about the beneficial effects of soy on cholesterol going back nearly 40 years, but other sources of plant protein can do it as well. Yeah, but we’re not swapping beans for beef. These products are mostly just isolated plant proteins, mostly pea protein isolate in the case of Beyond, and concentrated soy protein in the case of Impossible. If you just isolate out the plant proteins themselves are you still going to get benefits? Yes, surprisingly.
Interestingly, the researchers concluded, that they did not ﬁnd a signiﬁcant difference between protein isolate products and whole food sources, “suggesting that the cholesterol-lowering effects are at least, in part, attributable to the plant protein itself rather than just the associated nutrients.” So, it’s not just because plant protein travels with fiber or less saturated fat. Plant proteins break down into a different distribution of amino acids; and so, it’s like if you give people arginine, an amino acid found more in plant foods, that alone can bring down people’s cholesterol. And even plant protein concentrates used in these products aren’t pure protein, retaining a few active compounds such as phytosterols and antioxidants, which also can have beneficial effects.
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