How healthy is plant-based protein? Singapore study seeks answers for $10 billion fake meat industry

Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation wants to find out if meat substitutes are healthier than the real thing.

Meat alternatives for sale. Are they healthier than eating the real thing?
Meat alternatives for sale. Are they healthier than eating the real thing? Image: Amber-Natalya Bielka/

Mock meat is all the rage as vegetarianism grows in popularity, but just how healthy are alternative proteins?

People are switching to plant-based diets on the understanding that meat substitutes such as soy-based or pea-based proteins are the healthier option, as well as being better for the environment, and researchers from Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) have embarked on a study to test that hypothesis.

The study is the first to test the impact of novel plant-based proteins on human health in Asia. It focuses on Singapore because of the wide variety of foods available to consumers, and the growing trend for eating processed imitation meat substitues in the cosmopolitan city-state, particularly among the young. Singapore hopes to be a hub for the high-growth alternative protein market, which is expected to grow from US$10 billion in 2020 to US$15 billion by 2026.

The study will first establish the baseline diets of the three main ethnicities in Singapore — Malay, Indian and Chinese. It will then track health indicators from eating plant-based meats compared to animal meat over the course of a year, to determine whether different ethnic groups respond differently to plant-based proteins.

“We need more studies that look holistically at the nutritional impact of these [plant-based] food products over time, to inform the food industry of its potential benefits or the need for reformulation,” said Professor Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, principal investigator for the study and senior advisor at SIFBI, which is part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

Recent research that compares the nutritional profiles of plant-based and animal protein paints a mixed picture. Animal proteins such as milk, whey, casein, eggs, and beef has been found to contain more amino acids that are essential for human growth and development than plant-based proteins. Other studies indicate switching to a plant-based reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers incidences of obesity and the likelihood of contracting diabetes.

Some studies have also found health risks associated with some new plant-based products, such as the high sodium content of processed fake-meat brands Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat compared to beef. 

Eugene Wang, founder and chief executive of Sophie’s BioNutrients, a Singapore-based startup that makes protein from microalgae, said that the health impact of protein types depends on where it fits in the diet. “Plant-based protein can be very healthy or unhealthy — it depends how you eat it. We promote plant-based or alternative protein mainly for its sustainability benefits, not only for health benefits,” said Wang, who recently launched a new brand of milk made from algae.

SIFBI’s study is backed by China-based farmer-to-consumer e-commerce site Pinduoduo, which wants to test the nutritional value of some of the most popular products sold through its platform. In 2020, Pinduoduo, which has 788 million users, sold $40 billion worth of agricultural products in China.

Last year, Pinduoduo, and SIFBI collaborated to develop more a portable and lower-cost test for pesticide residues for produce, with the aim of improving consumer confidence and food safety, which is a major issue in China.

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