Fake Meat, Genuine Risks: Unveiling the Dark Side of Plant-Based Meat Substitutes

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In a world where plant-based meat alternatives are touted as the healthy, eco-friendly solution to our dietary woes, a groundbreaking new study exposes the dark underbelly of these ultra-processed impostors. As the fake meat industry churns out lab-grown "frankenfoods" with unknown long-term consequences, consumers are left to wonder: is the plant-based promise too good to be true?

As plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat gain popularity, a landmark new study challenges assumptions about their health benefits compared to traditional animal meats. The randomized controlled trial, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is the first to directly compare the cardiometabolic impacts of plant-based meat analogues and animal-based meats in an Asian population.1

While plant-based diets are associated with lower cardiovascular risk,2 the researchers emphasize that modern meat alternatives are a far cry from whole food plant proteins. Products like the Impossible Burger rely on novel ingredients such as genetically engineered soy leghemoglobin to mimic the taste and texture of meat.3 However, the long-term safety and health consequences of these highly processed imitation meats remain largely unknown.

In this 8-week study, 89 participants substituted their usual protein sources with either plant-based meat alternatives or equivalent servings of animal meats. Macronutrients were matched based on product labels, but lab analysis revealed that the plant-based options were significantly lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates and sodium than expected.

The results were striking. While LDL-cholesterol, the primary outcome, did not differ between groups, continuous glucose monitoring showed that glycemic control was significantly worse when consuming the plant-based meats. Time spent in the optimal glucose range was lower, and a marker of diabetes risk called GRADE was higher, in the plant-based meat group. Nighttime blood pressure also increased with plant-based compared to animal meat consumption.

These findings contradict the metabolic benefits typically seen with whole food plant-based diets.4 The authors suggest that the high carbohydrate and sodium content of meat alternatives may be to blame for the adverse glycemic and blood pressure effects observed.

The study adds to growing concerns about the "health halo" surrounding ultra-processed vegan foods. The Impossible Burger, for instance, uses a genetically modified soy protein called leghemoglobin that has never been part of the human diet. Despite objections from food safety groups, it was approved based on limited industry-funded safety tests.5

What's more, the Impossible Burger has been found to contain residues of glyphosate,6 a probable human carcinogen.7 "The problem with GMO engineering of food is not simply the presence or absence of allergenic proteins, nor agrochemicals, as many on both sides of the debate argue; rather, since food is a kind of gene-regulatory information, it can have far greater affect on our health and disease risk than could ever be expected when we focus on it simply as a source of calories and biological building blocks," writes Sayer Ji, founder of GreenMedInfo.com.8

Ultimately, this study challenges the notion that plant-based meat alternatives can be unquestioningly recommended as healthy substitutes for animal products. While minimally processed plant proteins remain an important part of a balanced diet, these ultra-processed analogs may have unintended metabolic consequences, especially for those with or at risk for diabetes and hypertension.

As the authors conclude, "the nutritional quality and health effects of plant-based meat analogues cannot simply be extrapolated from traditional plant-based diets. Minimally processed whole plant foods remain the most reliable foundation of a health-promoting plant-based diet."1

In an era of skyrocketing chronic disease, this study serves as an important reminder to think critically about novel food products, even those that may appear to be healthier choices. While reducing industrial meat consumption remains an important goal, swapping factory-farmed meats for lab-grown "frankenfoods" is unlikely to produce the desired health outcomes. Instead, a balanced diet centered on minimally processed whole plant foods may be the most reliable path to cardiometabolic well-being.


References

1. Toh, Darel Wee Kiat, Amanda Simin Fu, Kervyn Ajay Mehta, Nicole Yi Lin Lam, Sumanto Haldar, and Christiani Jeyakumar Henry. "Plant-Based Meat Analogues (PBMAs) and Their Effects on Cardiometabolic Health: An 8-Week Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing PBMAs with Their Corresponding Animal-Based Foods." Journal Pre-proof. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajcnut.2024.04.006.

2. Satija, Ambika, and Frank B. Hu. "Plant-Based Diets and Cardiovascular Health." Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine 28, no. 7 (2018): 437-41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tcm.2018.02.004.

3. Lamb, Catherine. "The Impossible Burger: Inside the Strange Science of the Fake Meat That 'Bleeds.'" WIRED, September 20, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/the-impossible-burger/.

4. McMacken, Michelle, and Sapana Shah. "A Plant-Based Diet for the Prevention and Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes." Journal of Geriatric Cardiology 14, no. 5 (2017): 342-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466941/.

5. Honeycutt, Zen. "Impossible Burger Attacks Moms for Publishing Pesticide Results." Moms Across America, May 19, 2019. https://www.momsacrossamerica.com/impossible_burger_attacks_moms.

6. "GMO Impossible Burger Positive for Carcinogenic Glyphosate." Moms Across America, May 16, 2019. https://www.momsacrossamerica.com/gmo_impossible_burger_positive_for_carcinogenic_glyphosate.

7. "IARC Monograph on Glyphosate." IARC. https://www.iarc.who.int/featured-news/media-centre-iarc-news-glyphosate/.

8. Ji, Sayer. "Vegan GMO Burger That 'Bleeds' Hits Hundreds of Fast Food Locations Including 'Organic' Ones." GreenMedInfo, October 24, 2022. https://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/vegan-gmo-burger-bleeds-hits-hundreds-fast-food-locations-including-organic-ones.

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