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Plant-Based vs. Whole-Food Plant-Based: It's a Plant Protein Smackdown 🥊

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
February 15, 2021

Good Monday, fellow nerds! ❄ It’s a typical February day here in the Northeast as we welcome another round of snow (and sleet, and freezing rain). But while it’s cold outside, the discussion around plant-based eating remains hot! 🔥

…Yes, that was the best I could come up with. 🤣

More seriously, there is part of the plant-based debate that I’ve touched on but haven’t delved too deeply into yet here at The Modern Health Nerd: the difference between a whole-food plant-based diet and what’s being popularized by the plant-based movement as more alt protein companies appear on the scene. 🍖🥗

Prompted by a conversation on LinkedIn last week, I’m digging a little more into the issue of what it means to be plant-based, how current trends in the plant-based movement may be skewing that meaning and the implications it has for consumers’ understanding of healthy diets.

Let’s take a look, starting with the big question: Are plant-based “meats” healthy? 🔭

The Great Big Plant Meat Debate

Whether you’re operating a brand in the plant-based space or are simply interested in the movement, it’s hard to miss the debate over whether or not alternative proteins are “healthy.”

Supporters say plant-based meat, dairy and egg analogs are essential for moving the general public away from animal products and toward a more sustainable (and ostensibly healthier) way of eating. Opponents counter that these products are highly processed and often contain a lot of fat, saturated fat and sodium. Add to that the stripped-down, isolated nature of the proteins—which prompts criticism who insist this removes the best parts of the plants—and you have the recipe for a heated conversation. 📣

The debate directly affects how plant-based companies approach product development. Consumers, on the quest to get rid of anything fake or artificial from their diets, are beginning to demand cleaner labels. This puts pressure on brands, which in turn puts pressure on ingredient producers, thus moving the clamor for “clean” further up the supply chain.

At the same time, there’s an ongoing quest for novel plant protein products to hit the magical “on par with animal protein in taste and nutrition” 🐄 sweet spot. This often clashes with the quest for clean label, given that plant products are not, in fact, animal products. (A fact that, as science continues to show, gives them their superior health benefits in the first place.🌿)

But the myth of animal protein superiority persists, despite the fact that most consumers have no real concept of meat’s protein content or overall nutritional profile.

Moreover, as Plantible foods co-founder Tony Martens has pointed out, mass-produced animal products only appear to be “clean label.” Labels on factory-farmed meat don’t list all the inputs necessary to pump out the vast amounts of fast-growing, cheap meat people eat every day. So, when a consumer looks at a packet of chicken, all they see is chicken. 🍗 There’s no mention of antibiotics, hormones, animal feed composition or additives used to make the meat look more appealing.

There’s also no mention of the generally appalling nature of factory farming.

This leads to a rather conflicting prevailing message. Plant-based, consumers reason, is healthier. But processed food isn’t. Therefore, the logical conclusion appears to be that processed plant-based food must not be as healthy as animal products, which appear to contain fewer ingredients.

But What Happens When You SWAP-MEAT?

This fuels a new debate: What if, as Dr. Michael Greger likes to say, this idea got put to the test?

Beyond Meat did exactly that in a study released in November 2020. Dubbed the Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternatives Trial (SWAP-MEAT 🤣🤣), this randomized crossover trial had two groups of 18 participants each consume either a diet consisting of at least two servings of meat per day, emphasizing mostly red meat and chicken, or a diet containing at least two servings of plant-based meat per day. After eight weeks, the groups switched dietary patterns.

The results, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, were small but statistically significant:

  • LDL cholesterol was about 10 points lower on the plant meat diet
  • Eating plant meat led to a loss of about 2 pounds, despite the fact that weight control wasn’t part of the study
  • TMAO levels went up on the animal-based diet but down on the plant-based diet

The most interesting outcome stems from this last point. TMAO—often associated with inflammation, arterial plaque buildup and excessive platelet aggregation—is produced when gut bacteria metabolize animal foods. So, it makes sense that levels increase when more meat is eaten. It would also make sense that these levels would subsequently increase when shifting for a plant-based diet to diet containing meat.

But that’s not what happened. When the plant meat group switched over to animal meat, TMAO levels didn’t jump back up. This could suggest a protective benefit from choosing alternative protein over animal products, but since research into TMAO and heart disease is still ongoing and this was just one very small study, it’s impossible to tell just yet exactly what they benefit might be. 🤔

After all, healthier doesn’t always equate to the best choice.

The Whole-Food Plant-Based Difference

Research on dietary patterns consistently shows that eating more whole plant foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes 🌿) leads to improvements in numerous areas, including weight control, heart disease risk and diabetes risk. The prevailing pattern in scientific findings suggests that, the closer people move toward whole-food plant-based diets, the more benefits they get.

So, while switching to plant-based meat in place of some (or all) meat may have some benefits, eating actual plants gives the most noticeable results—and there’s a significant body of research spanning decades to back this up.🔬

What’s an Alt Protein Brand to Do?

On the other hand, studies on processed plant proteins and novel proteins like some of the fermented and cell-based meat analogs 🧪 currently inching their way into the mass market are lacking. There simply hasn’t been enough time to study the effects of these products long-term.

Photo by Tioroshi Lazaro from Pexels

Until research exists to show whether plant-based alternatives—particularly those created to mimic actual animal proteins—offer protective effects, alt protein brands need to be careful with their messaging. It would be very difficult to change course if science determined plant meat is not, as some prevailing narratives suggest, the saving grace for climate, food equity and health. 🌍

Rather than suggesting consumers can keep their current dietary patterns and just replace animal proteins with plant-based products, brands may do better to tout their alternatives as part of the journey to a diet centered around whole plant foods. 🥗Creating a trajectory for consumers to follow offers time and space for them to learn the whys and hows of plant-based eating—and offers plant-based brands the opportunity to become sources of guidance in a world of confusion.

It’s a new frontier for both consumers and brands, and how the narrative unfolds will be integral to the future of the plant-based movement.

Do you see alternative protein as a solution in itself or a stepping stone to better health? 👇🏻👇🏻

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