The substitutes of meat are conquering portions of the market. For environmental reasons, in fact, many citizens are making choices that lead them to reduce or eliminate meat from the diet. This can have a non-secondary impact on ecosystems. But what consequences does this choice have from the point of view of health? James Gallagher, a BBC journalist who has been following nutritional issues for years, asked several experts on the subject and got the same answer from everyone: it depends. In general, these are ultra-processed products and some of the nutritionists consulted underline how a strange short circuit has been determined on them. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows that other ultra-processed foods, such as industrial sweets, are not that great from a nutritional point of view. Meat substitutes, on the other hand, enjoy what is called a positive aura, or ‘halo effect’, and are perceived as positive foods not only for the planet, but also for humans. Yet in many cases, like almost all ultraprocessed, they are rich in saturated fats, salt, additives (to make them tasty and to give them the correct consistency) and low in fiber (generally eliminated at the origin). Furthermore, there is no single standard: in fact, it depends.
The so-called ‘fake meat’, for example, can be made with very different flours, and if those of legumes, in particular beans, are still rich in proteins and mineral salts, others like that of jacob (better known as jakefruit, or Artocarpus heterophyllus, tropical plant that in recent years has been increasingly used, for example to simulate pork) are much less so. If we analyze the fake milk derivatives, then, the variability is even greater: in some cases, vegetable milks have an acceptable profile, albeit lower than that of cow’s milk (for example, they have low fat and moderate levels of calcium), but in others they are naturally high in saturated fat and low in nutrients. Much, then, depends on how the material was originally processed. In other words, even with the same ingredients, processing makes the difference, because it allows the essential constituents to be kept intact or not.
Come can you orient yourself? The ideal situation, writes Gallagher (reporting what some experts commented), would be to make meat substitutes at home, starting for example from beets or peas. Since, however, this is an advice that probably few are willing to follow, it is important not to give up a plate of salad or fresh, home-cooked vegetables, to be accompanied by the ready-made vegan dish. As for the latter, it is always essential to read the ingredients, trying to understand what it is, avoiding buying those that contain too many incomprehensible substances and preferring those that contain whole grains, nuts and legumes. This allows, among other things, to limit a known and not fully explained phenomenon: the tendency to consume more calories (on average 500 per day) that characterizes those who eat ultra-processed products, perhaps because this type of food has a reduced effect. on hormones that regulate appetite.
A study of a different character, focusing on the elimination of refined and nutrient-enriched cereals from the diet, shows how excessively focusing on a certain class of foods is not necessarily the best choice from a nutritional point of view. In this case, two North American researchers used data from the Nhanes (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) study on diet and health, related to US citizens for the period 2009-2016, and created a model to predict what would cause the decision to eliminate refined and fortified cereals (for example present in bread, breakfast cereals and wholemeal products) by 20, 50 or 100% from the diet in two age groups: 19-50 and 51-99 years. In both cases, given that the American population already normally takes in few nutrients such as fiber, folic acid, iron and magnesium from other sources, an elimination of even refined and almost always fortified cereals would result, in both age groups, in imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, with average levels often below those considered minimum to maintain a good state of health. In fact, it is calculated that, even without eliminating any food, percentages of the population between a few points and 15% do not take enough fiber, folic acid, iron and that more than half are stably below the threshold values for magnesium. By eliminating fortified cereals, these percentages all worsen significantly.
Research was published on Frontiers in Nutrition, an accredited scientific journal, but it was financed by a private foundation, the www.GrainFoodsFoundation.org which brings together dozens of producers: it must therefore be considered with caution, because it is likely that there is a more or less implicit push to promote refined flours . However, it is interesting, because it highlights how poor the diet of Americans is, despite the excess of calories, and how much it now depends on the addition of nutrients. Not only that: it also makes us understand how often reality is more complex than how it is represented. Deciding on your own, without a real reason and without a doctor’s advice, to ban a food category, may not be the best choice for your health.
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Roberto La Pira