Vegetable or plant-based meat, an idea that may sound a bit futuristic, but which, in recent years, has gained more and more attention from the food industry. In the freezers by the markets, a variety of this food that promises to be the “meat” of the future attracts attention: hamburgers, meatballs, nuggets and even tuna — all without a trace of animal protein.
The proposal that, in theory, promises to be healthier and more sustainable for not using livestock and, consequently, causing less damage to the environment, may not represent a positive balance in terms of nutritional value, according to experts heard by the R7.
The products — which deliver the color, texture and even flavor of the meat — are also considered ultra-processed, a category of food that indicates an intense industrial process, characterized by the loss of important nutrients and the excess of preservatives.
In the composition of vegetable meat, soy protein, widely used by vegetarians and other groups that have abandoned animal consumption, shares the leading role with pea protein and beetroot, the latter responsible for delivering the characteristic coloring of beef, for example. .
The point, in this case, is that the list of ingredients doesn’t stop there: there are also preservatives, colorings, stabilizers, essences, flavorings and flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate — chemical substances called xenobiotics, known for their damage to the health.
“Xenobiotics disrupt the body’s biochemical process, making it more inflamed. So possibly if the person has a higher pain threshold, they will feel more pain, will have a lazier or looser bowel, in addition to causing a longer delay in the weight loss process, even with less caloric products”, highlights Gabriela Cilla, clinical and functional nutritionist.
It is worth mentioning, however, that brands that offer vegetable meats with a cleaner label, that is, with fewer ingredients and chemical components, can represent a good option for those who want to remove animal protein from the menu. Still, even in these cases, daily or recurring consumption is not recommended.
Trading six for half a dozen
On the other hand, the more natural the plant-based meat, the higher the price. The logic also applies to the opposite: the more ultra-processed it is, the tendency is for the price to become cheaper. This is how the food industry works, as explained by Raquel Canuto, professor at the Nutrition Department at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul).
“After managing to take care of this portion of the population that has a little more purchasing power, the food industry always goes to the poorest population and, unfortunately, these foods are always of worse nutritional quality”, explains the expert.
In this sense, the scenario remains unfavorable for low-income populations to reduce the consumption of red meat, which is also unhealthy, since this type of protein is a source of cholesterol, a type of animal fat that is harmful to health.
“When we compare plant-based burgers — which I’ll call plant-based sausages — with raw meat, we might think that from a health point of view, it’s better to eat chicken, fish, or any other meat than to eat an ultra-processed plant-based food. which will have the same health hazards. We have a vast literature that points this out”, says Raquel.
The comparison also applies to vegetable and animal nuggets. In this case, neither are considered healthy or good options, according to nutritionist Gabriela Cilla.
“The problem with animal nuggets is the amount of fat they contain, because it is an ultra-processed product made up of ground cartilage, skin, bone, muscle and even meat. In nutritional terms, it will have a higher fat of animal origin, it will increase cholesterol and it will have more sodium. The vegetable product just doesn’t have cholesterol, because the rest, in terms of preservatives, will be basically the same”, he explains.
If the exchange does not represent a gain from a nutritional point of view, it is also not very effective in stopping the impacts on the environment, as pointed out by Raquel.
“There is much debate that the ultra-processed industry is the same as the livestock industry, so there are also a number of other environmental issues linked to the production of ultra-processed products that damage the environment. So swap food in naturameat for example, by ultra-processed foods, is not a big advantage”, he says.
When is the exchange healthy?
For those who want to stop eating meat or just reduce consumption, experts recommend betting on foods prepared at home with natural ingredients that are rich in protein.
“I always recommend, for example, a homemade chickpea or shimeji burger, [um prato feito] with eggplant or zucchini, quinoa. For those who want to try that Meatless Monday [movimento que propõe a redução do consumo de proteína animal] and during the week to consume products that are not industrialized, vegetable meat helps, but for the routine it is more valid to prepare it at home”, highlights Gabriela.
In addition, there is a wide choice of protein-rich plant foods that can meet the body’s needs without the impact of meat consumption. Rice and beans, a traditional combination in the diet of Brazilians, is an example of a meal that does not need animal protein, according to Raquel Canuto.
“Beans can be a good vegetable source of iron, a nutrient that is more present mainly in red meat, and we have a very large diversity of types of beans in Brazil. There is the lentil, which is a slightly more expensive legume, but which is also cheap compared to meat, the pea itself is a good option. If you are not a strict vegetarian, you can easily replace meat with eggs, milk, cheese, which also help to compose the diet so that nothing is missing”, he explains.
Raquel also points out that, with the exception of vitamin B12 deficiency, not consuming meat does not lead to any other harm to health. “On the contrary, we know that if a person stops eating meat and manages to follow a healthy diet, they will have gains in cardiovascular health, even something with regard to obesity and diabetes.”