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Do veggie burgers fit into a healthy diet?

Eating mainly food from plants is healthier than primarily eating food from animals. But what about meat analogues like veggie burgers? In-depth and at the same time broad, research at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) focuses on how meat analogues affect human health.

Many people like to eat meat. This is why veggie burgers and other meat analogues increasingly look, taste and feel like meat. In recent years, they have rapidly become more popular. With these burgers becoming a standard part of our diet, it is vital to do more research to understand better how to make meat analogues incredibly tasteful, 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. “Yet, the health effects of dietary patterns rich in consumption of plant-based meat analogues are not well understood”, Stieger says. “Especially about 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 as much as possible the quality of meat proteins. 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.”

Even more on the edge of what scientists like Capuano know, 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 next 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 looking at the challenges from numerous perspectives. “To understand these effects,” Capuano explains, “we need expertise in human nutrition, because we must 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 the 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. “The Division of Human Nutrition and Health, the Food Technology cluster, the Animal Sciences Group, the laboratory of Microbiology and Wageningen Food & Biobased Research have joined forces in that area,” according to Stieger.

Capuano and Stieger find all the required knowledge, methodology and equipment to address these research challenges on campus. A unique situation, Capuano thinks. “In Wageningen, we are frontrunners in the protein transition. And there is a fertile enviro

Beyond belief in healthy plants

The researchers hope to collect evidence on how meat analogues contribute to our health. “This is important as many consumers believe that these analogues are good for their health, while there is currently little scientific evidence on the healthy and possibly unhealthy aspects”, says Stieger.