NEW medical research shows plant-based meat alternatives are not substitutes for real beef in nutritional terms, despite fact panels on packaging often reading very similar.
The work, from Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, is being heralded by the red meat industry as strong evidence that tougher labelling on plant-based products is desperately needed.
A senate inquiry into such labelling is underway, with submissions closing on July 30. Part of the inquiry is considering the health implications of consuming heavily manufactured protein products which are currently being retailed with red meat descriptors or livestock images.
The results of the metabolomics comparison of plant-based products and grass-fed beef was published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.
Researchers did not give opinions on the superior nutritional value of either product but rather emphasised the finding that they may appear nutritionally interchangeable to consumers when they in fact are not.
Despite apparent similarities based on nutrition facts panels, the metabolite abundances differed by 90 per cent.
Amongst identified metabolites were various nutrients including amino acids, phenols, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids and dipeptides, with potentially important physiological, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory roles.
"Just as a peanut is not really an egg, we conclude that a plant burger is not really a beef burger," the researchers wrote.
"The new information we provide is important for making informed decisions by consumers, and to inform dietary advice by health professionals.
"Our work adds to the notion that caution is warranted when categorising foods as equivalent for consumers simply based on their protein content - that is 'protein foods' - which is typical in dietary recommendations."
They said future studies were needed to better understand how the presence and absence of metabolites and nutrients in plant-based meat alternatives and real beef impacts short and long-term consumer health.
The study notes that while plant foods are generally considered healthy to consume, researchers have expressed reservation in extending these notions to several novel plant-based meat alternatives given their ultra-processed nature.