Plant-based meat: What nutritional value does it add?

Sunday October 24 2021
Plant-based meat alternatives

Plant-based meat alternatives have become popular with weight watchers . PHOTO | COURTESY


There is a growing movement around the world of a “plant-forward” lifestyle for reasons ranging from health benefits, ethics, religous beliefs, saving the environment and even simply, to stop the slaughter or animals who have a right to life.

Would you give up meat for any of these reasons? Would you eat ‘’fake’’ meat?

Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat brand was recently launched in Kenya, making the country the latest country on the continent where one can subscribe and receive a door-step delivery of meat alternatives in the form of sausage, burger, spaghetti Bolognese and even meatballs. Think of any meat product and there is a plant-based alternative with options of beef, pork and poultry.

The products are made of lab-grown meat replica.

Kenya is the fourth country after South Africa, Mauritius and Botswana where Infinite Foods, Africa’s pioneering plant-based company is offering its meat alternatives brand, and the first in the region. Infinite Foods has collaborated with Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles plant-based protein and imitation meat producer to bring the brand to Africa.

The meat alternatives will fulfil the growing consumer demand for plant-based food options in Kenya, where a growing number of health conscious people and weightwatchers are increasingly embracing ‘’healthy’’ diets, and fueling a non-meat eating culture, plant-based milk products, and general plant-based foods as alternatives to animal products including not just meat, but seafood, dairy and eggs.


According to dieticians who spoke to The EastAfrican, suitably planned plant-based diets, are healthy, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, but there is a caveat; These “must be well-planned.”

A nutrition biologist at Lishe Living in Kenya, Job Omondi, says the biggest impairment of a non-meat diet is the vitamin B12 deficiency, a vitamin solely derived from animal products. “This is a very serious issue because not having enough B12 can lead to anaemia and result in the body not having enough red blood cells to do their job. Also, Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause damage to the nerves and can affect memory and thinking. But then the informed non-meat eaters are substituting this with supplemental B12 pills.”

He notes most of the concerns of non-meat eaters where nutrients are concerned including B12, iron, calcium, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.

There are many different terms to describe non-meat eaters, including veganism and vegetarianism.

A vegetarian diet typically includes vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and nuts and little or no meat. A vegetarian could eat dairy products, eggs and honey.

According to Valentine Young Kwadha, the group chief nutritionist at Mediheal Group of Hospitals in Kenya, a vegan is a stricter vegetarian who does not eat any food derived from animals and who typically does not use other animal products.

According to Kwadha, “Some people have taste and smell receptors that detect a steroid called androstenone and others have two copies of the gene that senses androstenone and smell the odour of and might have a mixed reaction to meat. For those who are very sensitive to it, they find meat really disgusting hence the avoidance.”

“One common motivation for shunning meat and going vegetarian is the promised health benefits. The vegan diet is generally considered to be higher in fiber and lower in cholesterol, protein, calcium and salt than an omnivorous diet,” said Kwadha.

“Eating a lot of red meat and processed meats can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and cancer. Cutting back on processed meats can improve your health. People who eat a vegetarian diet are less likely to have problems like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes but it’s not clear if this is a direct result of the diet,” he added.

He argues that because vegans typically live a generally healthier lifestyle keeping off alcohol, smoking and exercising more, it could be these lifestyle factors combined, that mainly contribute to a lower risk of heart disease and mortality, attributing the vegan diet to being healthier than it may actually be.

“There are still uncertainties around the vegan diet, particularly when it comes to long-term effects. Vegans have a lower body mass index (BMI) which means better cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. The vegan diet is much like any other. It can help to lower your risk of disease, or increase it depending on the foods you eat. If you compare a plant-based diet with one that includes meat, the plant-based diet is certainly better,” he notes.


Cubes of fried fake meat. PHOTO | COURTESY

But he says a diet high in fruit, vegetables, legumes and low in meat is healthier. There is a lot more digging and scientific data to be collected before its known for certain if veganism is healthier than any other diet – especially when it comes to long-term health effects, he says. In the meantime, he advises that the best vegan diet is one that includes fruits and vegetables, seeds, and B12 supplements and less vegan junk food.

“A transition to more plant-based diets may exert beneficial effects on the environment, but is unlikely to affect obesity, and may also have adverse health effects if this change is made without careful consideration of the nutritional needs of the individual relative to the adequacy of the dietary intake,” he says.

“If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s a good idea to talk to your dietitian about whether you should take any supplements. They can help you figure out what nutrients you are getting and not getting from the foods you eat. They can also tell you how and when to take supplements if you need them.”

He warns that the more restricted any diet, the more likely it is to be unbalanced and deficient in one or another nutrient. “This rule applies to vegetarian diets as well as to bizarre, weight-loss diets.”

According to Kwadha, “meatless meats contain more salt that is added to vegan fast foods to give the same meaty rewarding sensation that would otherwise be missing. Coconut oil is frequently the fat of choice in vegan cheese alternatives. This is because coconut oil is very high in saturated fats. In fact, it has higher levels than animal fats.”

Michelle Adelman, founder and chief executive of Infinite Foods said, “We have registered excitement around the arrival of Beyond Meat in the region. With the growing desire for healthier food options in daily diets without sacrificing taste, we are confident that Kenyans will embrace these new products.”

Beyond Meat products -- plant-based burgers, beef mince and brat sausage -- are now available at GreenSpoon, an online food store in Kenya.

The products are certified as Kosher and Halal.

Infinite Foods Kenya’s general manager Fred Njagi said, “This is a step forward in giving both plant-forward and meat loving Kenyans more options to maintain a healthier and more environmentally friendly diet.”


Sausages by Beyond Meat. PHOTO | COURTESY OF BEYOND MEAT

Environmental and ethical concerns around the meat industry are also driving interest in plant-based alternatives and the potential for lab-grown products.

Recent scientific studies have suggested that avoiding meat and dairy products is one of the effective ways to reduce one’s environmental impact, and generally speaking, food production is blamed for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.

Kenyan dietician and founder of Bonsana Nutrition & Wellness, Susan Musilu-Thinji explained that “Most food choices are based on personal preferences influenced partly by culture. But a person may have an aversion to meat because of taste or even texture.”

She said vegetarianism may reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers. “Avoiding meat has been used in management of some diseases,” she says, adding, “When balanced, being vegetarian has been shown effective in weight management.”

Ms Thinji however cautions, “vegans are at risk for some nutrient deficiencies especially vitamin B12 only found in animal products. Other nutrients to keep an eye on are calcium, vitamin D, iron and zinc. With an exception of vitamin B 12, a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet a person’s dietary needs. One just needs to be aware of their nutritional needs.”

Poor bone density and fractures may be common due to possible lower calcium intake, and the likelihood of B12 deficiency. There is the link between omega 3 deficiency and depression.

Mr Kwadha says while plenty of plants, like whole grains, legumes and spinach are rich in iron, it is not always the best type. “Non-haem iron is not as well absorbed by the body. Being iron deficient is a problem, particularly for women whose iron requirement for menstruation is higher. While dairy products are also a good source of B12, he argues that plant sources of B12 are less easily taken up by the body.”

The concern, as far as he is concerned is that the health risks associated with these kinds of nutrient deficiencies might not show up immediately. It could take years to associate foggy thoughts and tiredness with low B12 levels, infertility with low iron, and osteoporosis brought on by calcium deficiency does not show up until later in the 40s and 50s in most people.

“So, while you might reach for that plant-based burger with the best of intentions, remember exactly what it is – fast food – and be prepared for the fact that it might even be worse for you than its meaty cousin,” he warns.

“Producers and investors in plant-based and cultured meat hope it will rival the taste, cost and convenience of conventional meat. Some think it could take the place of our most environmentally-damaging meats and help meet climate targets,” he added.