Plant-based meat can boost heart health despite being highly processed, study finds

Plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) are growing in popularity, especially among younger and health-conscious consumers looking to replace animal meat in their diets, according to a recently published study. Canadian Journal of Cardiology This study determined the cardio-protective effects of PBMA in Canadians.

Plant-based meat can boost heart health despite being highly processed, study finds Study: Animal vs. Plant-Based Meat: An Interesting Debate. Image credit: Natalia Seim /

What are PBMAs?

PBMAs are highly processed foods used as meat substitutes. They resemble animal meat in look, taste and feel, but are synthesized using plant-based proteins such as wheat, soy, peas and fungi.

Over six million Canadians ate little or no meat in 2018, while a 2020 survey found nearly 25% of Canadians considered reducing their food intake. Decreasing animal meat consumption for ethical, environmental or nutritional reasons has increased PBMA consumption.

PBMAs typically have lower average energy density, total fat, saturated fat, and protein than meat, as well as higher fiber content. PBMAs provide most of the micronutrients found in meat products, as well as a healthier nutritional profile than most animal meat products. However, PBMAs are also higher in sodium, which may increase blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVD).

Since PBMAs are produced from extracts of whole foods or synthesized in a laboratory, they are also considered ultra-processed foods. In general, consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increase in the risk of total mortality and CVDs by more than 21% and 35%, respectively. These risks increase by 2% and 4%, respectively, for each one-serving increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods per day.

Thus, despite the potential benefits associated with consuming PBMAs, there remains an urgent need to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed food products. Nevertheless, further research is needed to clarify whether PBMAs are unhealthier than meat products.

About the study

The current study involved a systematic review of PBMA and analysis of 12 controlled trials, some of which were randomised.

Some trials did not report apolipoprotein B (ApoB) values, which are considered the most accurate CVD risk predictors compared with total or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Different control diets and different combinations of PBMA across studies contributed to heterogeneity in the analyses.

What does the study show?

Although PBMAs cover a broad nutritional spectrum, their consumption is associated with better overall heart health than meat products. These benefits are likely due to their lower saturated fat content, as well as higher polyunsaturated fat and dietary fiber content. Even with matched fiber and fatty acid content, PBMAs appear to be more cardioprotective than meat.

Currently available PBMAs are lower in saturated fat and higher in polyunsaturated fat than the alternatives used in most of the trials included in the current meta-analysis. Thus, estimates of the cardioprotective effect of PBMA are probably conservative.

In several trials, replacing meat with PBMA has been shown to reduce total and LDL cholesterol, ApoB-100 and body weight. The cholesterol-lowering effects of PBMA may be due to a variety of factors, such as using olive oil in place of butter, mayonnaise, dairy fat or margarine. In other studies, such dietary substitutions have been associated with a reduction in cardiometabolic risk and CVD mortality.

For example, olive oil is high in polyphenols, which reduce inflammation, improve endothelial function and lower blood pressure levels. However, many studies have looked at the use of non-representative tropical oils such as coconut oil as the primary fat source, instead of commonly used vegetable oils, which are 90% saturated fat.

PBMA Protein

A high intake of legumes is beneficial for CVD risk. In Western countries, soy protein is one of the most common bases for PBMA synthesis and has been consistently associated with a 16% reduction in CVD risk. Soy is rich in polyunsaturated fats and fiber, which contain potentially cardioprotective isoflavones.

Pea protein is another major source of non-soy-based legume protein in PBMA. Recent studies indicate that eating 400 grams of legumes per week may reduce the risk of heart disease by more than 10%; however, this benefit cannot be directly applied to PBMA, which contains only processed protein.

Wheat gluten and mycoprotein are also commonly used in PBMA. The potential health-promoting benefits of wheat gluten require additional investigation, as it may simply be a marker of whole grain intake rather than a protective food.

Mycoprotein is popular among fitness enthusiasts. It stimulates muscle mass and strength similar to the effects associated with meat-rich or soy-rich vegetarian diets. In addition, mycoprotein may promote satiety; however, its effect on cholesterol levels is still unclear.


Replacing meat with PBMA may be beneficial for heart protection,

Additional studies are needed to investigate the effects of PBMAs with higher unsaturated fat content on CVD risk factors, the optimal amount and type of PBMAs, and foods that can replace them. Whether these effects translate into actual reductions in adverse cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke also needs to be confirmed.

Although no adverse effects on CVD risk were observed regardless of the classification of ultra-processed foods, long-term trials are needed to confirm the safety of PBMA.

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