WUR and VMT, too simplistic?
On 19 August, the following message came online on the website of the VMT: WUR research: ‘Manufacturers of meat substitutes pay too little attention to healthy composition’. This message has been taken over by various (trade) media.
The study showed that diets based on new vegetable substitutes (including meat substitutes) often score below the daily requirement for calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B12 and exceeded the index (as do many animal products) in terms of saturated fat. fat, sodium, and sugar.
At Schouten, we have been focusing on fully-fledged meat replacement using vegetable substitutes for more than thirty years. The article by VMT immediately caught our attention and, of course, we started reading the research.
No research commissioned by WUR
During his previous job at the Singapore Institute for Food and Biotechnology Innovation, a professor, who has been working at WUR since this summer, conducted a study with a colleague in which plant-based diets were compared with ‘traditional’ diets in which a lot of meat is eaten. The research was therefore not carried out on behalf of WUR, as the title of the report suggests.
While reading the research and studying the underlying data, we came across quite a few issues that can be questioned in relation to the strong headline of the VMT article and the main conclusions that are drawn.
Three providers, four products
The aforementioned study only included meat substitutes from Impossible Foods (USA), Beyond Meat (USA), and Gardein (Canada).
The conclusions published by WUR and VMT are based on only four products (meatless bacon, plant-based beef jerky, plant-based burger with low-fat cheese, and plant-based chicken tenders). Not exactly representative for the total meat substitute product group and for all meat substitute producers.
Meat substitutes just one element
In addition, the claims are based on diets of which the aforementioned meat substitutes are only a element. The meat substitutes in question are not compared 1-to-1 to the animal counterparts when the claims are drawn.
Plant-based dairy products were also included in the diets studied. Remarkably enough, however, VMT only talks about the ‘producers of meat substitutes’. This while, for example, soy milk scores much higher in the study on ‘sugar’ than the meat substitutes studied.
It is also striking that plant-based beef jerky is included as a ‘morning snack’ in the diets mentioned. The meat version of this is missing from the reference diet.
According to the researchers, this ‘morning snack’ was added to achieve the required amount of protein in the diet.
However, the plant-based beef jerky contains a very high amount of salt. This has a large share in the conclusions drawn that a diet with meat substitutes (novel plant sources) ensures a higher salt intake. A different choice for a protein-rich vegetable product could have led to a different conclusion.
Vegan coconut ice cream vs ice cream
For example, there are a number of foods in the flexitarian and vegetarian diet that seem to have been chosen to make these diets as high as possible in terms of fat, salt, and sugar. An example of this is that during the dessert ‘vegan coconut ice cream’ was chosen as a replacement for normal ice cream.
It is known that products containing coconut score high on fat and saturated fat. That’s the case here, as well. In the reference diet, ‘ice cream’ scores 2.50 g on fat. The coconut variant in the flexitarian and vegetarian diets scores a whopping 12.85 g. More than five times as high.
Choice of alternatives determines conclusions
The choice for a number of such ‘alternatives’ therefore has quite an impact on the final conclusions. The researchers also characterise the reference diet as typically ‘Western’. This is also very simplistic. With bacon for breakfast and fries and a beef burger for lunch, it seems like a typical American diet. Later in the study it is stated that it concerns a typical diet of an American man. However, the conclusions are drawn much broader.
In short? Was this click bait?
A provocative headline is needed these days to get clicks. We also participate in this with our content. This article caught our attention, we feel responsible and addressed. Diving deeper into this, it turns out that there are quite a few caveats to be made about the research. Unfortunately, many people only read the title and see evidence or reason for a negative image of meat substitutes.
Due care needed
It also happens the other way around. Meat substitutes are often viewed positively in the media with regard to meat. Often rightly so, but sometimes also indiscriminate and far-fetched. This is therefore not a promotional piece for meat substitutes, but above all a call for careful drawing of the right conclusions and careful journalism. You can certainly expect this from WUR and VMT.
We also enjoy working with both organisations. Here we felt called to voice a dissenting opinion. We do our very best to meet health guidelines and nutritional requirements.
How does Schouten work then?
We have prepared our product development guidelines. Our product developers must adhere to this. This includes, for example, a maximum content of salt and saturated fats. Protein quality, protein content and policy on ingredients to be used can also be found in these guidelines.
Over time, this rapidly changing market will also see changes in customer requirements, sustainability insights, and legislation. Currently, the Nutriscore is something that we are increasingly taking into account. In this way we continue to evolve to offer tasty but also healthy products.
Iron and Vitamin B12
A tricky point is adding iron and vitamin B12. This is desirable in the Netherlands (The Nutrition Centre advises this). In Germany, France, and Scandinavia, for example, adding iron and minerals is not desirable.
Of course, this doesn’t make it any easier. We have therefore asked the Nutrition Centre in the Netherlands several times to discuss these matters with comparable bodies in neighbouring countries. Equal European guidelines would help us a lot.
We always keep in touch with our customers about the composition of the products. They also set their conditions. Together we look for the best solutions. Consumers mainly want tasty and healthy food for a good price. Those remain the most important priorities for us.