Chicken vs. imitation meat

Imitation Meat vs. Chicken: Which One Is Best for You?

Imitation Meat vs. Chicken: Which One Is Best for You?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Even if it's called "Chik'n," your body might not absorb the proteins from imitation meat as well as from a real piece of poultry. According to a new preclinical study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, imitation meats (plant-based proteins processed to mimic animal meats) break down into small peptides that are different from animal protein peptides, which could make it more difficult for cells to absorb them.

This means that even if the nutrition labels on a veggie burger and a beef burger show similar protein levels, it's possible your body will absorb less of the protein from the plant-based meat alternative.

This does not mean plant-based proteins are not an essential part of a well-rounded diet, especially for vegetarians and vegans. But it does raise questions about relying entirely on processed vegetarian protein sources or imitation meats.

"This work opens a door on the nutritional properties of plant-based meat alternatives," noted study authors Da Chen and Osvaldo Campanella of Ohio State University in a New Scientist report. Chen and Campanella hope to do further studies to help boost the peptide uptake of processed plant proteins.

What is imitation meat?

Imitation meat, or plant-based meat alternatives, has many names and comes in a wealth of shapes, sizes and tastes. You've got Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Incogmeato, Chick'n Strips, F'sh Filets and many, many more. They are all products that mimic (with varying degrees of success) the taste, texture and appearance of meat, but are processed with plant-based ingredients, such as soy, wheat, etc.

None of those commercially available processed plant proteins were involved in the Ohio State research. Instead, scientists created an imitation meat in their lab through high-moisture extrusion using soy and wheat proteins. Then they simulated digestion of the imitation meat and a chicken breast in-vitro and found that the chicken broke down into smaller peptides that were more soluble in water.

The chicken peptides also passed more easily though colon tissue than the processed plant protein peptides, leading to the study's conclusion. That means peptide uptake might be different among popular commercial imitation meats, and more research is warranted.

Processed plant-based protein vs. meat. Which one is better?

As the research points out, processed plant proteins like meatless patties are newer to the dietary scene and are therefore not as well-studied. Like animal protein, they can be a healthy protein source in a balanced diet. But commercially processed plant proteins share some of the same concerns as processed animal protein because of added sodium, fillers and preservatives. Many varieties of plant-based alternatives to meat also are not fortified with amino acids; compare that to chicken, which is considered a "complete" protein source because it contains all 9 essential amino acids that your body requires from your diet.

The decision about whether to eat processed plant-based proteins or meat rests on a variety of factors, and neither is necessarily "better" than the other. Both can be part of a balanced diet. Vegetarians and vegans do not eat meat, but omnivores and flexitarians might choose differently.

We've all heard the warnings about red meat, which most heart-healthy diets limit to about once a week to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. And most healthy diets avoid processed red meat such as sausages and lunch meats as much as possible.

Other animal proteins such as fish and chicken are considered healthier sources without as much saturated fat, and fish has the added health benefit of omega-3s, which support brain and heart health.

People should try to consume as much whole, unprocessed food as they can, with a focus on trying to add more plant foods, but there is a place in a balanced diet for processed foods. After all, affordability and time are huge dietary factors for many people. Still, processed meat and processed plant protein such as Chick'n and F'sh should be consumed as occasional treats, not diet staples.

When buying processed foods, shop smart. Beware of added fat (especially trans fat), added sugar and salt. And remember your healthiest choices: unprocessed, whole fruits and vegetables (which are jam-packed with nutrients), legumes and nuts, and lean, protein-rich poultry and fish.

Health benefits of plant-based proteins

Plant proteins are mostly provided by grains and legumes, which have plenty of other nutritional benefits as well. Both legumes and whole-grain cereals contain high amounts of complex carbohydrates, including both soluble and insoluble fiber, and much less fat and saturated fat than animal proteins.

Following a plant-based diet benefits your health because of the dense nutrition of most plant-based foods. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and other healthy compounds, such as:

  • Dietary fiber
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Phytochemicals such as phytosterols and polyphenols

The fiber in plants contributes to research that shows vegans and vegetarians are more likely to have beneficial gut bacteria. Studies also link plant-based diets to optimal heart health, reduced risk of heart disease, and healthy weight management.

Plant-based diets have become more popular in the past few decades not only for their positive impact on our health but because of their positive impact on the environment. Also, plant proteins and plant-based foods are generally less expensive than meat proteins.

Do we always need meat protein?

Animal protein is a good source of essential amino acids (amino acids are needed to build proteins, and they help your body absorb nutrients from your diet and aid in tissue repair, among other benefits), as well as many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that your body needs. Plants provide most of those nutrients, but not all, which is why supplemental nutrition is often recommended for those following a strict plant-based diet.

Those who avoid animal protein might be missing out on the B vitamins, iron and zinc (among other nutrients) that meat supplies. It is recommended that vegetarians eat a good variety of plant proteins to get the complete range of amino acids and essential amino acids in their diet. Whole-food legumes in particular—such as black beans, lima beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, green peas, black-eyed peas and peanuts—are extremely healthy protein sources.

Although we do not always need meat, most dietary committees recommend getting proteins (and the amino acids they deliver) from a mix of sources. This includes legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products as well as high-quality animal sources, such as fish and lean poultry. Try to avoid the saturated fat of hamburgers and fried bacon. Data has shown that red meat increases the risk for cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes, and type 2 diabetes.

5 tips for healthy nutrition

Want to get more out of your diet? Try these five tips:

  1. Eat more vegetables and fruit.

    These are the true plant-based gems we all need to eat more of! Nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables support your immune system, longevity, breast health, heart health and more. Current recommendations are to eat at least five servings of a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruits daily.
  2. Get high-quality protein from a variety of sources.

    If you eat mostly animal protein, try adding plant-based protein sources. Fish and lean poultry are also good choices: low in saturated fat while being high-protein. The variety will help you get a complete range of amino acids.
  3. Limit intake of red meat and processed meat.

    Not only can meat be expensive, many studies support the health benefits of eating less red meat and processed meat, which can be high in saturated fat and is linked to high cholesterol and heart disease.
  4. Limit intake of added sugars like soda.

    Too much added sugar can cause damaging blood sugar spikes, contribute to obesity, and have other health consequences.
  5. Try to find a dietary pattern that doesn't feel too restrictive

    , otherwise you will almost certainly quit! Find a balanced diet that works for you and makes you feel good.



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