People are increasingly looking to reduce their meat intake for all sorts of reasons, including to improve their health and reduce their impact on the environment. This means the demand for plant-based alternatives is rising, but at the same time there remains concern about the nutritional quality of vegan meat. These negative views about the impact of processing can be a deterrent for people making the change.
Contrary to popular belief, vegan meat made with processed soy does not make it any less nutritious, according to a new study published in nutrition science journal Frontiers in Nutrition. This confirms soy’s status as a valuable source of protein for plant-based products.
The study, conducted by scientists from multinational brand Unilever and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, challenged the notion that processed soy in products such as vegan meat is less nutritious and therefore an inadequate source of protein.
Prior to this study, little was known about the effect of processing methods on the protein’s nutritional quality.
The science behind soy meat
For soy, various processing techniques are used to produce soy-based products, such as cleaning, crushing, dehulling, and flaking soybeans, followed by oil extraction, to make soy protein flour; and the additional step of removing insoluble carbohydrates to make soy protein isolate.
To obtain textured fibrous vegan meat that closely resembles animal meat, soy flour, concentrate and isolate undergo post-processing procedures such as extrusion. During extrusion, protein material goes through a series of physical and chemical changes under thermomechanical treatment (or applying force at specific temperatures). The components present in the material interact, and a meat-like structure can be formed.
To better understand the effect of processing on protein quality, the study assessed the digestibility indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS)—the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s standard measure—of various products. The higher the score, the better the protein source fulfills our body’s requirements, with a score of 75 or above considered good.
Analysis of the data showed different protein quality scores between soy product groups, but the DIAAS score for soy protein concentrate—the most commonly used in food such as plant-based meat—was 88, which is slightly higher than whole soybeans which score at 85.
Additionally, most soy products had high protein quality scores, and the researchers could increase or decrease the quality through processing and post-processing conditions.
The broad variations in protein quality scores from the soy products indicate that variations in protein quality scores may be attributed to various forms of post-processing, such as additional heat treatment or moisture conditions. According to the researchers, this study shows that vegan meat alternatives can meet our bodies’ protein requirements.
“For the first time, a study comprehensively finds that the protein quality of soy used in our plant-based foods is not compromised during processing, contrary to misconceptions. In fact, processing soy slightly increases the protein’s nutritional quality,” Amelia Jarman, Unilever’s Future Health and Wellness Science and Technology Director, said in a statement.
The growth of vegan meat
Controlling soy’s protein level opens doors for plant-based food manufacturers to explore their products’ nutritional and protein content.
“Given the rising demand from environmentally conscious consumers looking to transition away from meat but still looking for nutritious, high-quality food, this research is very exciting as it proves that meat-free alternatives actually do fulfill our bodies’ protein requirements,” Jarman said.
The knowledge gained from the study will help Unilever further innovate plant-based meats for the consumer market and reach its sustainability commitment. Through the company’s Future Foods commitment, it has pledged to hit €1 billion ($985 million) in annual sales from vegan meat and dairy alternatives before 2027, which means consumers are likely to see a wider range of options coming from the brand.
In recent years, Unilever has added a growing number of plant-based products to its portfolio, including vegan ice cream flavors under its Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Talenti, and Magnum brands. In 2018, Unilever acquired Holland-based company The Vegetarian Butcher and has since partnered with fast-food chains worldwide to add vegan meat options to their menus, including Burger King locations around the world.