Nutrition can be confusing. The fact that there is so much passionate disagreement over what constitutes an ‘optimal human diet’ suggests that we still have a lot to learn.
One of the earliest Biblical conflicts and the first murder involved revolved around whether an animal vs grain sacrifice was more appropriate (i.e. Cain vs Abel).
Today, with the fierce debates between vegan and carnivore camps, it seems not much has changed.
But we have learned a lot since we found that foods that contain Vitamin C cured scurvy.
Over the past century, we have learned to isolate vitamins and synthesise them in factories.
Now, we fortify many of our most common foods (bread, milk and cereal) to compensate for the nutrients that are no longer available in our food system.
Many people take supplements as ‘insurance’ against their nutritional indulgences.
But nutrition is still a young science that is often driven by superstition, dogmatic religious beliefs, group think, culture, tradition, ethics and commercial interests.
Not everyone claims to be a rocket scientist, but because everyone eats, everyone has beliefs and opinions about nutrition. Conducting research on humans is difficult, so the data we have is often incomplete, leading us to make well meaning ‘best guesses’ that often end with disastrous results that are hard to unwind.
Nutritional research is often very expensive, meaning that research is often funded by large corporations with a financial interest in a particular outcome, which can cast doubt on the validity of the results. Nutritionists are also often not respected because they are seen to be regurgitating the messages that Big Food wants us to hear.
While your diet doesn’t need a name or a belief system, it’s hard for the average punter who wants to eat healthily to isolate scientific truth from bias. So we often gravitate to nutritional camps that run the risk of tuning into fads when taken to extremes.
Our food system is far from immune to our ever-increasing rate of innovation and the pressures to grow things faster and more cheaply to feed our global population and drive profits for the companies that are stepping up to play a part.
The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C Mann is a great read that outlines the tension between innovative “wizards” wielding innovative technology and cautious “prophets”. When it comes to the field of nutrition, the “wizards” are forever creating new ways for us to eat food that is cheaper and yummier.
“We need to feed the world more efficiently”, they say. And for better or worse, they create foods that we buy more of.
Meanwhile, the “prophets” are harkening back to the “good old days” and warning us of the perils of not eating like your grandmother, the Mediterraneans, or our caveman ancestors ate. These prophets are romantic and nostalgic about the way we ate in the past and warn us not to move too quickly beyond the foods that made us human.
However, regardless of the warnings of impending nutritional doom, the challenge of feeding ten billion humans with limited resources is real.
One of the most controversial and topical questions today is whether we can progress beyond animal-based meat to a “more ethical” and “sustainable” plant-based source of food.
Whilst we can get our calories from anywhere, whether imitation meat it is optimal for us as humans is a different matter. If we can engineer food that looks and tastes like meat (and even ‘bleeds’) and contains a similar macro and micronutrient profile, is it as good for us?
There is no shortage of opinion pieces on this topic, but they tend to start from a biased position. They also typically focus on the taste and texture without getting into the nutritional pros and cons of imitation meat. So, this article aims to look beyond the wonders of modern flavouring technology to consider the pros and cons on a more fundamental nutritional basis.
To address the issue of non-plant based “meat” requires us to cover some of the “progress” made by our wizards over the past century as well as some of the warnings of the “prophets” we will touch on a number of key considerations including:
- the role of chemical fertilisers,
- vitamin and mineral supplementation,
- food flavourings and colourings,
- synthetic vitamins and fortified foods,
- modern agricultural practices, and finally
- imitation meat and lab-grown meat!
Hopefully once we cover off on these concepts you will be armed to make a more informed decision as to whether plant based “meat” products are right for you.
Back in the ‘Good Ole Days’
Food has always been a central part of what it means to be human. But historically, our food choices were much more simple and barbaric.
Humans are adapted to be opportunistic hunter-gatherers. While there’s plenty of argument about what we ate in days gone by, our fossil records suggest that we consumed a significant amount of animal-based protein compared to other animals.
We optimised our food choices using an Optimal Foraging Strategy, which means in essence that we were lazy and used the least energy possible to obtain the food we needed to survive. We tried to use the least energy possible, to obtain the greatest amount of energy to survive. In the age of woolly mammoths and other megafauna, that meant fatty meat and lots of it.
Before the modernisation of our food system, nutritional optimisation and nutrient density were irrelevant because everything we could hunt or gather contained plenty of the nutrients we needed.
Through our symbiotic development with nature, we learned to utilise everything that nature could provide us with. We are only now beginning to understand our biochemistry and how every metabolic pathway is dependent on different nutrients.
Obesity was rarely a problem because energy was hard to obtain. Our ancestors optimised their nutrition, but in a totally different way. We put in just enough effort to get enough food to survive, but not too much much more.
There wasn’t any use in wasting time obtaining more food than was absolutely necessary. “If you managed to get too fat, you likely had more difficulty capturing prey and had a greater chance of being eaten by predators.
You’d probably think twice before you reach for the cookie jar at work if you knew you were going to get eaten because you were the slowest in the tribe.
While the wizards can be proud that we have put our brutal caveman times behind us, the prophets look back on prehistoric paleo times fondly.
As well as a high level of nutrient density, nature provided us with the food we needed at the right time.
- In autumn, we had more energy dense food that contained both fat and carbs (e.g. nuts, seeds, fruits) with low protein that enabled us to consume more energy to store fat to survive the winter.
- In winter, we had fatter animals to hunt for energy that had also gorged on the autumnal foods.
- Then in spring, we had lean protein from other animals that successfully survived the winter and fibre from the new plants.
- Then in summer, we had plenty of carbs from fruit and grains to give us fast-burning energy.
- Then we were back to autumn again with the ideal combination of foods that triggered our gorge instincts that ensured we fattened up for winter.
Today we create diets such as keto (winter), the protein sparing modified fast (spring) and low fat (summer) that all tend to help us eat less and lose weight because they align with the foods that nature provided throughout the year.
But whether through trial and error or clever food engineering, the wizards have worked out how to trigger our gorge instincts by providing us with hyper autumnal cheap hyper-palatable foods that are low in protein, low in nutrients but have plenty of fat and refined carbs together in a way that was never possible before.
For better or worse, there is no way to return to paleo times. I’m not sure how many of us would actually want to, or survive for very long if we did. We have now entered the anthropocene where humans have the greatest impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. However, there is still a lot we can learn about optimal nutrition, by looking back at the context in which we are most adapted and optimised our biology.
The beginning of the end
It was around ten thousand years ago that we learned to domesticate grains. This Agricultural Revolution defined the end of the Paleolithic Era. Rather than moving around so much to find new food sources, we settled down and grew our crops in the same plot of land.
Ten thousand years later we are realising that this separation of our animals and gardens leads to growing mono crops leads to nutrient depletion, erosion of topsoil, desertification, monocultures.
Today, some of our prophets are talking about regenerative agriculture and working with wizards to work out how to rebuild the symbiotic natural ecosystem. However, back in the day, this change in the way we managed our food production enabled a step change in our survival and our population growth rates.
If your measurement of success was survival of the species, ensuring food security, optimising for maximum energy intake with minimum effort and making more babies, then change to agriculture was a massive change for the better!
As shown in the chart below, the agricultural revolution and our ability to obtain more food more easily increased our population growth rate from a measly 0.0015% per year to 0.015% per year, spread across the world.
Large scale agriculture has been instrumental in enabling population growth and our exploitation of all corners of the globe.
With a global human population of fewer than ten million people ten thousand years ago, overpopulation or the need to relocate to Mars due to the environmental destruction we would cause to the earth was never on the radar. But fast forward ten thousand years and the story has changed.
The detonation of the population explosion
Agriculture would not present such a big problem for us if we didn’t manage to work out how to extract energy directly from non-renewable fossil fuels and inject it into our food supply.
Population growth, fuelled by our ability to domesticate grains and the agricultural revolution continued on at a fairly steady rate until the creation of chemical fertilisers.
The ability to fix nitrogen from natural gas has been dubbed the “detonator of the population explosion“, enabling our global population to increase from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 7.7 billion in 2018 and forecast to rise to ten billion by 2050.
In the 1930s, Haber and Bosh were both awarded Nobel prizes for perfecting the process of fixing nitrogen from natural gas to create chemical fertilisers.
This ingenious invention now uses 3-5% of the world’s natural gas production and 1-2% of the world’s energy supply and has enabled us to double our food production and support a step change in human population growth of up to 2.1% per annum in the 1960s when US agricultural policies changed to maximise food production while minimising cost.
Chemical fertilisers allow land that has been made barren through over usage and nutrient depletion fertile again. Farmers were no longer reliant on the limited availability of manure and did not need to rest their fields to grow crops quickly.
On the upside, our ability to grow more food more quickly and cheaply means that far fewer people die of starvation. However, the downside is that with more energy we have created more (but lower quality) food, and are able to grow more and bigger humans.
But we are highly likely to suffer from the diseases caused by our ability to access more energy than we need that no longer contains high levels of nutrients.
The ability to harness the power of (non-renewable) fossil fuels and inject them into our food supply, means that we can now support an extra 3.25 billion people on the planet. But who knows what will happen as our oil and natural gas supply becomes more and more scarce and expensive?
Our addiction to growth and expansion also means we are left looking to the wizards to pull another rabbit out of their hat to feed all the people that their last invention created.
“Hidden hunger” due to nutrient depletion
The chart below shows the change in calories available per person in North America over the past century.
Things were looking fairly dire on a number of fronts coming out of a number of wars, until a number of aggressive policy changes enabled the US to ramp up their food production (see The Biggest Trends in Nutrition for more details).
Not only did we change the way we grow food, planting from fence line to fence line on larger and larger farms, but we also used use new breeds of crops that yield more energy more quickly, the use of chemical fertilisers to grow our food has forever changed our food production.
But the widespread injection of fertilisers to fuel the growth of our food has also coincided with degradation in our food quality, with nutrients like calcium, potassium and magnesium on the decline with an increased rate of food production and obesity. Today, we need to consume a lot more energy to get these nutrients we need.
Since we discovered how to extract oil out of soybeans and rapeseed using chemical solvents around 1910 the use of cheap omega 6 rich “vegetable oils” in our food supply has exploded!
The use of butter and lard (which are high in saturated fat) have been obliterated by vegetable oils.
Cheap and hyperpalatable, vegetable oils are perfect for food enterprising wizards in terms of sales, and our wallets, but not necessarily our health and our waistline. While the saturated fat in our food system has increased marginally, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat that have experienced massive growth over the past hundred years.
Impact of the US Dietary Guidelines
Another major milestone in our dietary landscape was the introduction of the Dietary Guidelines for The United States, published by the United States Department of Agriculture. The guidelines happen to align with the fertiliser fueled big agriculture, recommending that we eat:
- less fat,
- less cholesterol,
- less refined and processed carbohydrates,
- more fibre by eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and
- less high-fat meat, egg and dairy products.
Americans have obediently cut their cholesterol intake to record lows. But obesity rates have continued to explode in the opposite direction.
Our intake of Vitamin A, which is critical for normal vision, reproduction and immune function and is found in liver, fish, eggs and dairy, also seems to have taken a dive since the introduction of the US Dietary Guidelines. Unfortunately, these foods were not part of the USDA’s farm-centric agenda or their focus on selling “heart healthy whole grains”.
The nutritional content of our food system has deteriorated to the point that we now have to rely on fortification with synthetic isolated vitamins to have any chance of meeting our micronutrient requirements.
Our obesity rates have increased as our ability to produce energy has increased and the nutrient content of our food has decreased.
It’s not necessarily carbs or fats that have triggered the growth in obesity, but both together (while protein has stayed fairly constant).
It’s also worth noting that protein from animal based foods is typically more bioavailable and has a higher protein efficiency ratio. It’s possible that we have increased our total protein intake to compensate for a decrease in the bioavailability of available proteins since the introduction of the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and people started eating less animal based foods.
What about vitamins?
We’ve had an inkling there is something beneficial in natural fertilisers (i.e. the poo and decomposing compost that plants love) that synthetic fertilisers lack for nearly a century.
Back in the early 1920s, experiments were done to see if food grown with synthetic fertilisers were better or worse than the traditional method of replenishing the soil with manure.
Major General Sir Robert McCarrison ran an experiment where they grew wheat and millet in identical plots to compare food grown with synthetic fertilisers and animal manure and found that “Rats and pigeons fed on the manure fertilised foods grew robustly, while those given chemically fertilised crops suffered from malnourishment.”
Manure, urine and saliva from untreated live stock are full of microbes that increase the diversity of the soil microbiology. The rumen of cattle, for example, has archaea, protozoa, bacteria, fungi just like soil ecosystems. Soil is effectively the plant’s “gut” and the interaction between an animal’s gut in nature and a plant’s soil gut is cyclical.
However, in spite of (or perhaps even because of our reliance on) chemical fertilisers, we are not able to replenish the nutrients in our soil when we grow the same crops in the same land year after year with no rest and natural manures from animals.
Food fortification is the process of adding micronutrients to food to reduce the number of people with dietary deficiencies in a population.
- Iodine is added to salt to prevent mental retardation, stillbirth and miscarriage;
- Folate is added to foods like bread to prevent neural tube defects;
- Nacin ((Vitamin B3) is added to bread to avoid pellagra and vitamin D is added to milk to avoid rickets; and
- Many people also take a multivitamin (and a slew of other supplements) as an insurance policy against poor food choices and/or a lack of nutrients in our soils.
Food manufacturers were initially sceptical of food fortification because they had to admit that their food no longer naturally contained nutrients. But before long, they embraced it and now market that they contain high levels of nutrients that are only there because they were made in a chemical plant in China.
If your corn no longer contains vitamins, minerals or flavour you can add them all back in via synthetic nutrients, call it Frosted Flakes (with sugar as the second ingredient) and then market it as a ‘Good Source of Vitamin D’.
Unfortunately, the glossy packaging fails to mention that Frosted Flakes only contain one gram of protein per serving. While protein is arguably the most important nutrient to ensure you are getting enough of, improving satiety and helping you not to overeat, it is also the most expensive!
Food fortification with synthetic vitamins is like Photoshop vs natural beauty due to true health and vitality. It might make the food look better on the label than it really is. The fact that you needed to use synthetic vitamins and fortification is also cause for concern and an indication that the actual nutritional content is not necessarily up to scratch.
In the context of a nutrient depleted food system, synthetic vitamins and fortification may be a net positive. However, there are a number of potential problems when it comes to relying too heavily on supplements and synthetic nutrients.
- Fat-soluble vitamin D that is added to low-fat milk which has had the fat removed may not be well absorbed into the system with a very low-fat diet.
- Phytochemicals like phytic acid in grains can impact nutrient absorption of nutrients such as iron and calcium. While many women suffer from a lack of dietary iron, many men are actually carrying excessive levels of iron which can contribute to obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
- The body moderates its levels of folic acid that it makes from dietary folate, however excess consumption of folic acid can cause issues with methylation, especially if you have a low vitamin B12 status.
- Excess levels of B vitamins from hyper absorbable synthetic supplements are also thought to overdrive methylation.
- Synthetic vitamins come in a crystalline form compared to nutrients in food which are bound carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The food matrix affects the bioavailability and absorption of nutrients.
- It’s hard to get too many minerals from whole food, but if you take too much salt, magnesium or potassium in powdered form, you’ll be off to the toilet while your body evacuates your digestive tract because it doesn’t know how to digest that much of the nutrient at once in that form.
While there are thirty-six essential nutrients, there are different forms of each of these nutrients as well as a plethora of other beneficial non-essential nutrients that occur naturally in our food.
When your food naturally contains plenty of essential nutrients, it’s likely that it also contains complementary non-essential nutrients (e.g. isothiocyanates, tannins, polyphenols, resistant starch, phytochemicals etc) that are also arguably beneficial.
There is admittedly plenty of disagreement about what all these non-essential nutrients do in our body. However, the fact that there is still disagreement about whether or not they are beneficial highlights that we probably don’t know enough about the food we eat to be able to manufacture it synthetically.
Your taste buds have been duped!
Earlier we mentioned Optimal Foraging Theory as the way that humans optimised the nutrition to maximise their intake of nutrients. One of the main things we optimise for is energy. We need enough energy to ensure we can move about, chase our prey, make babies, grow and store fat for winter.
Some people say humans were fat hunters in days gone by, but this was largely because energy-dense foods were hard to come by. But with the magic of modern agriculture and fertilisers, getting enough energy is no longer a problem.
We also optimise for macronutrients. We crave protein to repair and grow our muscles and organs. But once we’ve had our fill of protein, we tend not to overeat it because it’s hard to convert to ATP and nearly impossible to convert to fat.
The Protein Leverage Hypothesis highlights that we consume energy until we get the protein we require to survive, and today we typically need to chew through a lot more fat and carbs to get our protein. Thus, if we can manage our protein : energy ratio, we can increase the satiety of our food so we tend to eat less.
We crave sweet foods because they contain carbohydrates to replenish our glycogen stores, so that we are ready with fast burning fuel to run away from the lion or bear or chase down our prey. However, the “wizards” from McDonald’s and Uber Eats have ensured that we no longer have to move much to get the carbohydrates we need to survive.
The diabetes epidemic is evidence that we are drowning in excess carbohydrate.
We also crave fat as a slow-burning default fuel source that will enable us to easily store energy for winter and get energy in quickly. Again, the ability to extract oil from soy, rapeseed and corn has more than satisfied our requirement for energy from dietary fat.
But perhaps the most powerful way that your body optimises your food choices to suit our needs is via our highly developed sense of taste and smell that used to be able to ensure that you could identify the nutrients in foods.
You have different cravings for particular foods when you need the nutrients they contain. You get a dopamine hit from the foods that are beneficial. When you have had your fill of the nutrients you need, you no longer crave those foods. Sensory-specific satiety kicks in and you no longer crave those foods.
What is amazing is the way that the smells and tastes that we crave, all correspond to volatile compounds that correspond to the nutrients in foods that we need.
Living in Australia, one of my favourite foods is kangaroo which is not farmed but rather culled due to their growth to plague proportions due to agriculture. From the data I can find, kangaroo meat is very nutrient dense, very high protein, sustainable and relatively humane.
But beyond the numbers, the thing that validates for me that it’s a healthy food is to see how much my dog goes into fits of begging whenever I’m cooking it. He’s got a nose that knows more about nutritional content than my spreadsheets or databases ever will.
For what it’s worth, the Cronometer screenshot below shows the nutrients that I would get if I could consume 2000 calories worth of kangaroo (note: there are some blanks where we don’t have complete data). It seems my dog might be onto something in terms of nutrient density!
Mark Schatzker elucidates the relationship between nutritional content, smell and taste really nicely in this talk and his book The Dorito Effect.
But what do you do when food no longer tastes good because it contains a lack of nutrients? Well, luckily for the food industry, the wizards were able to develop the gas chromatograph that could map the flavour profile of the foods we enjoy and mimic that flavour synthetically.
Suddenly, food no longer needs to contain nutrients to taste amazing and addictive.
We can now flavour anything to taste and smell like something else.
These added flavourings and colours trick our appetite into thinking that these foods contain the nutrients we need. Then, we find we still need more nutrients, so we keep eating, hoping to get what we need, but it is just false advertising.
This video shows the lengths that the many food scientists at Impossible Burger go to to replicate the taste and sensation of eating meat. It still seems they have some work to do before they can fully mimic the flavour and texture! To be clear, this is about taste, not nutrition!
Nutrients in animals vs plant foods
Nutrient density is the number of nutrients in food per calorie. Regardless of the source, we typically consume a fairly consistent amount of calories each day. Ideally, you want to consume adequate nutrients each day from the food you eat.
As a general rule, nutrients towards the bottom like Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, K1 and iron are easy to get in adequate quantities, while it is the nutrients towards the top of this chart (e.g. choline, pantothenic acid, potassium, magnesium and calcium) that are harder to find in adequate quantities.
But not everyone eats the average of all of the available foods. As shown in the chart below, according to the USDA:
- 85% of the US population are not getting their required intake of vitamin E,
- 75% are not getting enough folate, and
- 73% are not getting adequate calcium.
What constitutes a nutrient-dense food for you depends on your current diet and what nutrients you need more of.
Animal and plant-based foods have very different but complementary nutrient profiles. Whether you should consume more animal-based foods or more plant-based foods really depends on the nutrients provided by your current diet.
The chart below shows the nutrient fingerprint for animal-based foods which provide plenty of Vitamin B12 and amino acids while not providing as much vitamin K1, vitamin C, folate, calcium and magnesium.
Meanwhile, plant-based foods contain heaps of vitamin C and vitamin K1 while not having as much omega 3, B12 and choline towards the top of the chart.
However, when we combine the most nutrient dense animal and plant-based foods we can create a shortlist foods that contain more nutrients with the same amount of energy.
Consuming more of these nutrient-dense foods is particularly useful if you are trying to lose weight while avoiding nutrient deficiencies. While you may find it hard to eat only these super nutritious foods, most of us would benefit from eating more of them more often and less ultra-processed foods to avoid the metabolic health issues that many of us are facing today.
If you prefer plant based foods you could approach nutrient density as targeted supplementation with animal based foods that contain the nutrients you are not getting enough of.
Conversely, if you prefer animal based foods you can approach nutrient density as targeted supplementation of vegetables (usually the non-starchy green ones) that contain the nutrients that are harder to find on a plant-based diet.
Our analysis of data from people using the Nutrient Optimiser shows that we tend to consume less energy when we get more nutrients from food (not supplements). And there is typically no simple cut of where we can say we are getting ‘enough’ of the various nutrients. In most cases more is better.
As shown in the chart below, the strongest driver of satiety tends to be protein.
However, in line with the protein leverage hypothesis, it seems that our bodies will consume more energy to get the other nutrients it needs as well.
Ofter protein, the biggest driver of satiety, to be potassium, which most of us aren’t getting enough of. While the ‘Adequate Intake’ is 3.8 g per day and the ‘Recommended Daily Intake’ is 4.7 g per day people seem to benefit in terms of greater satiety with much higher levels of potassium.
Similarly, people seem to benefit from more folate, which is found in either organ meats like liver or green plants. Again, we see a strong satiety response at intakes well beyond the recommended minimum intake levels for folate.
Up until recently cholesterol was a nutrient of concern, however getting more than 1.5 g of cholesterol actually seems to benefit in terms of satiety. It seems that the benefit for more cholesterol starts to plateau when we go above about 1.2 g/2000 calories, but there is a very steep satiety response up until that point, perhaps because many people tody follow a diet that restricts cholesterol.
We see a similar trend with increasing satiety with nearly all of the essential nutrients including pantothenic acid, phosphorus, magnesium or sodium.
It’s no wonder the UN and WHO are becoming so concerned about hidden hunger and malnutrition due to a lack of nutrients in our modern food system.
Advocates of a plant-based diet like to point out that animal-based foods tend to contain fewer vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, the carnivore diet proponents will highlight that some nutrients are less bioavailable from plant-based foods.
The reality is that both sides of this argument are true to an extent. It doesn’t really matter if a certain nutrient is more bioavailable from a certain source if there is very little of that nutrient available to be absorbed!
It’s also important to note that a lot of your nutrients are lost from both meat and vegetables when you cook or refine them.
Animal-based forms of vitamin A, iron and omega 3 fatty acids are already in the form used by the body without needing to be converted, whereas plant-based foods contain nutrient precursors, meaning that the nutrients need to be converted before being used by the body.
But regardless of bioavailability, you can’t absorb nutrients that aren’t there. It’s a bit like asking your friend if you can borrow a million dollars. It doesn’t really matter how willing he is to lend it to you, if he’s got no money in the bank he can’t really help you!
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reliable data to quantify how much of the nutrients are converted, but at the same time, those nutrients that are less bioavailable are generally relatively easy to get in adequate quantities.
Fortunately, uncertainty around bioavailability doesn’t stop us from using the data we do have to analyse the nutrients in your diet. While it would be great to have accurate data to quantify losses due to bioavailability from plant-based foods vs animal-based foods, it doesn’t really have a significant consequence if you are focusing on a range of nutrient-dense foods from both animal and plant sources.
Should you eat Lancet?
I recently carried out a detailed analysis of the EAT Lancet dietary recommendations which have been proposed to promote sustainability for a growing population. After all the hype, the nutritional guidance boils down to the table below.
The chart below shows the breakdown of these foods in terms of calories from various sources.
While Eat Lancet is marketed as optimal for the planet and human nutrition at the same time, it’s worth looking at the companies behind EAT Lancet (i.e. big food companies, fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers and drug companies) and considering what their motivations may be and why they may be so eager to invest in this.
It’s also important to note that the food groups that Eat Lancet recommended consuming more of tend to be very poor sources of nutrients.
Beans, lentils and peas tend to be ve3ry low in omega 3, B12 and choline.
As do soy foods (not to mention the estrogenic and infertility effects).
Rice wheat and corn are even worse when we remove the fortification.
Unsaturated fats chemically extracted from soy, corn and rapeseed don’t give you much other then energy and vitamin E.
While sugar is the most efficient way to get your energy, you won’t find many people recommending that we eat more of it from a nutrient density perspective.
When we look at the nutritional profile of the recommended foods we see that, with such a large contribution of processed grains and oils, we get a very poor nutritional outcome.
Is meat the optimal food?
It’s been fascinating to see the flourishing of the carnivore diet over the past couple of years.
Many people seem to do really well when they transition from their normal diet to a diet that contains mainly animal products.
While some people are motivated to go carnivore to manage their digestive issues or autoimmune issues, others are just curious to see what the hype is about.
It’s still early days though, and there aren’t that many people that have practised an exclusively carnivorous diet for that long.
In time, people can experience side effects, cravings for a wider range of foods or just get bored with a meat only diet.
While I don’t think a diet consisting of only muscle meat is optimal in terms of nutrient density, it will be a major improvement from a diet that relies on refined grains, soy and processed oils. A diet of just beef and lamb contain heaps of bioavailable protein and B12.
However, if you are willing to add in some organ meats you can actually get a fairly good nutrient profile. The Cronometer screen grab below shows the nutrient profile for 2000 calories of liver.
I was able to try crocodile meat recently and was pleasantly surprised by how satisfied if left me feeling. The micronutrient profile is also amazing! Whether we can feed ten billion people sustainably on crocodile and kangaroo is another question. But I wanted to point out that you can actually get an amazing and highly bioavailable nutrient profile from animal based foods. You can see how the foods available in the good old days would have been brimming with nutrients compared to most of the foods available to us today.
The chart below shows a plot of nutrient density vs satiety (see interactive Tableau version here). If you were trying to lose weight, a diet consisting mainly of non-starchy veggies supplemented with seafood and organ meats would be optimal. But if you’re not wanting to lose too much weight then you will need to find some more energy dense foods.
The foods that pretty much everyone should avoid if they want to avoid nutrient deficiencies and obesity are foods that consist of refined grains and processed seeds oils in the bottom left of this chart.
There are a number of major benefits of meat, including:
- Adequate protein – Many people would benefit from increasing the protein content of their diet.
- Bioavailable nutrients – Nutrients in animal-based foods are typically more bioavailable and in the form that we need without having to convert them.
- Minimally processed – This is a big deal! As we have learned from this article so far, processed foods tend to contain artificial flavours, colours and fortification to make them look like something that they are not!
- Honesty – Meat is honest food. It is what it claims to be. Nothing more, nothing less. Animal and fish have selected the best plant-based foods they could find and bioaccumulated protein and nutrients from and in their flesh without the need for teams of food scientists to try to make it taste like something it’s not.
Acellular vs cellular
It’s also worth noting a paper by Ian Spreadbury from 2012 which showed that processed and refined ‘acellular carbohydrates’ have a vastly different effect on our system compared to foods in their original unprocessed form. Regardless of macronutrient profile, it seems that processed foods tend to raise your leptin and decrease satiety which tends to keep your body weight set point higher so you maintain a higher set point.
According to Spreadbury, acellular processed foods drive an increased intestinal inflammation. While the focus of the paper was on highly processed carbohydrates, it’s not unreasonable to think that the same would apply to meat in its original ‘cellular’ form vs a processed foods foods which are typically some form of processed soy or wheat plus refined vegetable oil.
So, with the context in place, we can now get to the ‘meat’ of this article: the question do we need animal-based meat?
Plant-based meat alternatives have been around for decades, but food companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are upping the ante lately by working harder and harder to make their food look and taste just like meat.
The ingredients for these two meat alternatives are shown below. If you’ve made it this far, you should understand just by looking at the ingredients that this is nutritionally going to be different to eating meat.
The Beyond Burger is predominantly pea protein and canola oil with coconut oil to provide enough saturated fat to provide texture to make it taste like meat. It’s actually the yeast extract (or MSG) that provides most of the nutrients along with an umami meaty flavour.
We then have ‘natural flavours’ and a range of other ingredients to provide texture and colour to make it look and feel more like meat.
Meanwhile, the Impossible Burger uses textured wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein. Again, ‘natural flavours’ are a key ingredient as well as yeast extract.
Impossible also includes heme extracted from soy to make it taste a bit more like meat. But rather than relying on as much of the yeast extract, Impossible Burger simply adds in liberal doses of synthetic fortified vitamins. As we saw earlier, while it might make the nutritional label look a bit better, having supplemental vitamins does not make it nutritionally equivalent.
What’s in a steak?
To understand how the available meat alternatives compare we first need to understand what’s in a steak.
The Cronometer screen grab below shows the nutrients contained in 800g or 2000 calories of sirloin steak (i.e. a relatively fatty cut of meat).
From a macronutrient point of view, 46% of calories are from protein with the rest from fat. When it comes to vitamins, we reach the recommended daily intake for B3, B6, V12 and choline. In terms of minerals, we hit the DRI for iron, phosphorus, selenium and zinc.
For comparison, the Cronometer screen grab for 2000 calories of the Impossible Burger is shown below.
Only 37% of calories come from protein with 10% from carbs (#notketo) and the remainder from fat. While the available nutrient data is limited, we can see that we hit the RDI For B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, iron, sodium and zinc.
At first glance, it looks likes the Impossible Burger is more nutrient dense than the steak, but let’s look at the basic ingredients if we were to remove the yeast extract.
The Cronometer grab below shows the nutrient profile of 190g of pea protein, 115g of coconut oil and 20 g canola oil which matches the macronutrient and fat profile of the Beyond Burger fairly closely. Without the yeast extract (i.e. MSG), the vitamin and mineral profile actually looks appalling!
But once we add 80g of yeast extract back in, we boost the vitamins and minerals significantly. The main ingredients of Impossible Burger (i.e. pea protein, canola oil and coconut oil) are nutritionally devoid. Most of the nutrients are coming from the yeast extract/MSG.
Unfortunately, the available nutritional details of Beyond Burger are a little sparse. The main protein sources (textured wheat protein and potato protein) aren’t commonly available so they’re hard to analyse, but I can only assume the micronutrient profile from these highly processed ingredients is likely to be similar to the Impossible Burger. The data that we do have is shown below.
The main differences are that Beyond Burger only uses coconut oil (no canola) and uses synthetic vitamins to boost B1, zinc, niacin, B6, B2 and B12.
The bottom line here is that both Beyond and Impossible are highly processed products that will digest and be absorbed extremely quickly.
The base ingredients are highly processed and nutritionally poor without the addition of synthetic vitamins or nutritional yeast.
It’s hard to see that these imitation meat products would be equivalent in the body. While there’s probably no harm in consuming a processed food like this occasionally it would not be an ideal choice as your primary source of energy.
Cell-based or cultured meat
Not a lot is known about cell-based or cultured meats. However, it is an entirely different product to the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger in that it relies on growing cells from a cow foetus, feeding it nutrients in until it can be harvested and sold as a meat alternative. The cell media contains sugars, amino acids, antibiotics, minerals and cytokines (i.e. growth factor which is fetal bovine serum), to feed the growing stem cells.
From what I can ascertain, this is a highly energy-intensive process that is heavily reliant on the addition of synthetic nutrients from industrial agriculture into the process that is unlikely to contain all the essential and nonessential that an animal that ate grass in the wild would contain. At the moment there is no data available to confirm or deny this.
What about sustainability?
The sustainability discussion gets complex very quickly.
It seems if you account for the rain falling on pastures where livestock graze, you can make the numbers look pretty bad in terms of water usage for animal-based meat (however this seems disingenuous to me).
While the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet are debatable, there are a number of things you can do that will have more significant environmental benefits.
Some say that cows burping and farting are methane producers which adds to the global greenhouse gases, but it also appears that the methane released into the atmosphere from fertiliser production plants is significant and grossly under-reported, and could even be the dominant cause of methane emissions and greenhouse gases.
But on the other hand, eventually we have to admit that an agriculture process that is heavily reliant on finite fossil fuel fertilisers is ultimately unsustainable.
While the most efficient way to get energy is sugar and the cheapest is vegetable oils on a calorie for calorie basis, just thinking in these simple terms is not necessarily the healthiest or most nutritious for the humans eating them. We’re going to get ourselves into trouble as long as we hurtle toward the carrying capacity of Earth at breakneck speed injecting energy directly into our food system from fossil fuels with little regard for the nutritional requirements of humans eating them.
An addictive food system that relies on the wizards creating more and more ingenious ways to feed more and more people who are also becoming obese and diabetic and getting more and more metabolic related diseases may not be worth supporting over the short term or the long term.
While the current method of meat production may not stack up so well environmentally against modern agriculture, it seems that regenerative agriculture (where animals graze land that cannot be used for growing of crops and animal manure and is funnelled back into the soil rather than our waterways) is even better.
Put your money where your mouth is
One part of the solution is to find a way to enable humans to eat less by prioritising high satiety foods, which is good for the planet as well as our health and longevity. If you have the means, you should invest in the most nutritious foods that you can afford for you and your family, while also supporting regenerative and humane methods of food production. Industry will respond to consumers who are willing to put their money where their mouth is!
To ensure you are achieving this, you can quantitatively prioritise nutrient density. As well as being great for your health, avoiding hyperpalatable highly processed foods that rely heavily on big agriculture will be good for the plant.
Nutrient-dense foods also tend to be grown in more of an old fashioned way with less reliance on fossil fuel fertilisers and more in harmony with nature. Using the latest in modern technology (e.g. Nutrient Optimiser) we can identify the foods that contain more of the essential nutrients we are lacking to help us be more satisfied.