Swapping out red meat for plant-based meat alternatives can lower some cardiovascular risk factors, according to a new study by researchers at Stanford Medicine.
The small study was funded by an unrestricted gift from Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based meat alternatives. The researchers used products from the company to compare the health effects of meat with plant-based alternatives. Beyond Meat was not involved in designing or conducting the study and did not participate in data analysis.
It may seem obvious that a patty made of plants is a healthier option than a hamburger. But many of the new meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat, have relatively high levels of saturated fat and added sodium and are considered highly processed foods, meaning they are made with food isolates and extracts as opposed to whole beans or chopped mushrooms. All of these factors have been shown to contribute to cardiovascular disease risk, said Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.
“There’s been this sort of backlash against these new meat alternatives,” Gardner said. “The question is, if you’re adding sodium and coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat, and using processed ingredients, is the product still actually healthy?”
To find out, Gardner and his team gathered a group of more than 30 individuals and assigned them to two different diets, each one for eight weeks. One diet called for at least two daily servings of meat — the options available were primarily red meat — and one called for at least two daily servings of plant-based meat.
In particular, the researchers measured the levels of a molecule, trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, in the body; TMAO has been linked to cardiovascular disease risk. They found that TMAO levels were lower when study participants were eating plant-based meat.
A paper describing the results of the study was published Aug. 11 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Gardner is the senior author of the paper. Postdoctoral scholar Anthony Crimarco, PhD, is the lead author.