Do veggie burgers fit into a healthy diet?

May 19, 2023

Eating plant-based food is healthier than consuming mostly animal products. But what about meat analogues like veggie burgers? In-depth and at the same time extensive research at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) focuses on how meat substitutes affect human health. The adoption of meat analogues is important for the protein transition. Stacy Pyett, Programme Manager Proteins for Life at WUR, talks about the current state and challenges of this protein transition during the innovations summit F&A Next at Wageningen Campus on 24-25 May.

Many people like to eat meat, yet are looking for plant-based alternatives at the same time. Hence, veggie burgers and other meat analogues increasingly resemble meat in terms of taste and texture. In recent years, such products have rapidly gained popularity. Now that these meat analogues have become a regular part of our diet, it is crucial that there is more research to better understand how to make them tasty but also as healthy as possible.

Meat analogues contain plant proteins, which are processed into a burger or other product, together with other ingredients. These products are of special interest to WUR researchers such as Markus Stieger, Professor in Food Oral Processing at both the Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour Group and the Food Quality and Design Group and Edoardo Capuano, Associate Professor at Food Quality and Design. “However, the health effects of dietary patterns rich in consumption of plant-based meat analogues are not well understood”, Stieger says. “Especially when it comes to the long-term health effects, there is very little information available.“

Proteins and gut microbiota

“The first and foremost aspect is the quality of the meat analogue’s proteins, which should mimic the quality of meat proteins as much as possible. But it is not just that”, says Capuano. “It is also the quality of the added fat as well as the level of other nutrients, including minerals, such as iron, vitamins and even salt, which could influence health.”

Another thing that scientists like Capuano know only little about is how the gut microbiota is affected by changing food habits. “Everything that is not digested and absorbed by our body is exposed to our gut microbiota”, says Capuano. “So replacing meat with plant-based meat analogues also changes the chemical environment of the gut microbiota. We don’t know yet what the effect of such exposure is.”

Multidisciplinary questions

New studies by Stieger, Capuano and other researchers at Wageningen University & Research dive into the health effects of meat analogues. They aim to answer numerous questions, such as: How are the proteins in those products digested? How can the body use them? How are the microbiota affected? And, in addition to proteins, carbohydrates and fats, vitamins and minerals will also be studied, as well as the presence of potential heat-induced toxicants.

Such questions can only be answered by considering the challenges from numerous perspectives. “To understand these effects,” Capuano explains, “we need expertise in human nutrition, because we need to understand all the complex responses of protein-rich food. We need microbiologists to understand the effects on the microbiota in the large intestine. And we need animal scientists to conduct animal studies on digestion to complement the knowledge gained from human studies.” Moreover, Stieger’s research adds the effects of chewing on the digestion and metabolism of the ingredients.

Moving forward together

At WUR, a joint effort is made in this research area. Many collaborative projects have started across chair groups, institutes and departments. Wageningen University & Research has also been researching the protein transition for years and believes it is important that this knowledge is widely applied in practice. This is why WUR is committed to sharing knowledge with the wider group of stakeholders, such as business, start-ups and other knowledge institutions, that is needed to realise the transition in practice. During F&A Next, these stakeholders will come together to consider this topic, among others.