Everything we know about plant-based meat so far
Research findings by our Unilever Science and Technology Future Health and Wellness team at Hive and various collaborators on a range of topics have shed some interesting light on important areas like consumers’ long-term acceptance of plant-based meat, our emotional connection to it and the whole question around adequate nutrient intake in comparison to diets with animal meat. Get the lowdown.
The need to reduce our intake of animal meat has become clear in recent years with researchers and health authorities outlining the reasons why transitioning to more plant-rich, sustainable diets brings significant benefits to the health of people and planet. Substituting animal meat with plant-based meat is one effective way to support this transition.
However, the adoption of plant-based meat has yet to become mainstream, partly perhaps because many questions remain around how plant-based meat compares to animal meat when it comes to nutrient intake, its ability to satisfy us and how we connect with it emotionally.
How to facilitate a lasting change in eating patterns?
The long-term acceptance of plant-based meat is central to facilitating a lasting change in eating patterns. In a recent intervention study, our scientists delved into consumer perceptions of plant-based meat during repeated home-use, incorporating meal boxes with recipe suggestions.
Over four weeks, 61 meat-eating participants prepared meals at home using The Vegetarian Butcher’s NoChicken Chunks and NoMince products. The findings revealed that liking for plant-based meat remained consistent with repeated home-use. The study indicates that repeated consumption does not significantly influence overall acceptance.
As part of the TKI consortium 'PlantPROMISE', the team collaborated with Wageningen Food & Biobased Research (WUR) on the paper, which has been peer-reviewed and published in the Food Quality and Preference journal. These findings provide significant insights for further research regarding sustainable eating habits, showing that plant-based meat remains popular over time.
What about the emotional aspect of eating plant-based meat?
Emotions also play a big part in our food choices. A positive emotional response to foods is critical to the success of food products in the marketplace.
Our emotional response to plant-based meat is a relatively unexplored area. The Hive based scientists sought to change this with an online survey involving 279 meat eaters and flexitarians. Participants were shown pictures of a plant-based meat burger and an animal meat burger and were asked to rate their expected eating experience against 13 food-evoked emotions.
Results showed that imagining eating plant-based meat burgers can make us feel “proud”, “cool” and less “guilty”, compared to animal meat burgers, while the latter can make us feel more “happy”, less “bored” but also more “worried”.
Plant-based meat hits the spot
Our need to feel full after eating is another key driver of our food choices. Results of a recent survey by the Hive based scientists concluded that meals with plant-based meat can be just as satiating as meals with animal meat.
60 adults consumed four fixed ready-to eat meals for lunch at home once per week. Each dish was prepared with the same recipe except for a direct swap – 125g each – of either animal meat (chicken breast and minced meat) or its plant-based meat equivalent.
As well as no difference in the satiating power of each dish, findings showed the meals did not result in energy or macronutrient compensation during the rest of the day after consuming the meals.
One of the most commonly-asked questions about plant-based diets is – do they provide the essential nutrients we need?
Two recent literature reviews by our Hive based scientists have sought to answer this. The first one focused on adults, while the second focused on children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. Both reviews evaluated the nutrient intake and status of each group with the aim to compare the nutritional impact of vegetarian and vegan diets on health compared to meat-based diets.
Together, the researchers reviewed in total more than 170 studies that were published over a 20-year period (2000 to 2020) and conducted mainly in Europe.
The findings showed that in general plant-based diets are higher in important nutrients like fibre, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), folate, vitamin C, vitamin E and magnesium, compared to meat-based diets. However, those consuming plant-based diets were at a higher risk of inadequate intakes of Vitamin B12, iron and zinc.
However, the reviews also showed that in all the dietary categories reviewed, people were still not eating a wide enough variety of foods to get all the nutrients they needed. Therefore, increasing consumption of a variety of plant-based foods in combination with food fortification and supplementation where needed is recommended to have a sustainable and nutritionally adequate diet.
Continuous investment in key enablers like technology and research is a top priority for Unilever. This allows us to continue creating plant-based products that have the same great taste and texture as animal meat but have a lower environmental impact. We always strive to improve our products and satisfy our consumers’ changing needs and preferences with innovation at the core.
Two new research projects will help to advance our work even more:
A new public-private partnership ‘EXPLAIN’ led by Wageningen University & Research will look at the health impact of eating plant-based meat, compared to animal meat. The nutritional quality of plant-based meat products will also be investigated.
Another new research project is aiming to improve the flavour and texture of plant-based meat alternatives by exploring protein-flavour interactions. IFF, Unilever and the Wageningen University & Research are partnering on a four-year research project to explore how flavours bind to protein molecules. The goal is to recommend novel flavouring strategies that elevate the sensory experience of plant-based meat alternatives.
Research findings to date paint a positive picture around the emotional acceptance and liking of plant-based meat. Sustained use of plant-based meat products is key to its long-term adoption in consumer diets. Plant-based meat is just as satisfying as animal meat and plant-based diets provide many of the nutrients needed adults, children and adolescents. However, increased consumption of a diverse range of plant-based foods, fortification and possibly supplementation are recommended to ensure adequate intake of all nutrients required. Finally, new research getting underway will shed even more light on the health impact of eating plant-based meat as well as how to improve its flavour and texture even more.