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Chicken bests plant-based meat alternative for protein intake, study suggests

By Judy Packer-Tursman
Chicken bests plant-based meat alternative for protein intake, study suggests
Chicken bests a meat alternative when it comes to how well human cells absorb the protein, a new study says. Photo by Michael J. Bennett/Wikimedia Commons

June 22 (UPI) -- The popularity of plant-based foods is likely boosted by research touting its nutritional value and even cancer-fighting properties. But a new study suggests that when it comes to protein intake at the human cellular level, an American staple, chicken, bests it.

That's according to a study published Wednesday in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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Soybeans and other plants high in protein are common ingredients in plant-based foods, but it's been unclear how much of the nutrient advances into human cells, researchers from Ohio State University's Department of Food Science and Technology said in a news release.

Da Chen, who was the study's lead author, is a former postdoctoral student at the university. He now is assistant professor of food science at the University of Idaho.

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"Our in vitro tests have shown that the profile of essential amino acids of meat analogs after digestion and absorption is slightly inferior than those from chicken. But still the profile is suitable and can complement a balanced and healthy human diet," Chen told UPI.

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"By changing formulation and processing conditions, meat substitutes with better texture and nutrition could be achieved," he said.

He noted that the research was based on "one meat analogue formulation," and protein nutrition could be different in meat alternatives "with different formulations and different processing conditions."

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Also, Chen said, the "in vitro study could not 100% reflect what happens to proteins in vivo," that is, in the human body. So, extending the study to human participation "is in our future research plans," he said.

Wayne Campbell, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, who is described by the National Institutes of Health's Office of Nutrition Research as a "protein expert," said the new study is "an important first step" in understanding nutritional values.

"These types of studies are very helpful and need to be done for understanding as we transition from sources of dietary protein in traditional foods to sources of dietary protein coming from fabricated foods," Campbell said.

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To create meat alternatives, protein-rich plants are dehydrated into a powder, seasonings added and, typically, mixtures heated, moistened and processed without the unwanted fats found in meat.

Already, lab tests have shown that proteins in meat substitutes don't break down into peptides as well as proteins from meats, the scientists said.

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But their new study went a step further to determine whether human cells can absorb similar amounts of peptides from a meat alternative as from a piece of chicken.

Researchers created a model meat alternative composed of soy and wheat gluten that looked like chicken inside with long, fibrous pieces, produced by high-moisture extrusion (forcing out moisture).

Cooked pieces of the substitute and chicken breast were ground up and broken down with an enzyme that humans use to digest food.

Subsequently, according to the researchers, in vitro tests showed their meat-substitute's peptides were less water-soluble than those from chicken and not absorbed as well by human cells.

Given this result, they said, the next step is to identify other ingredients that may help increase the peptide uptake of plant-based meat substitutes.

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