Pork’s place in an increasingly plant-based world

By Mary Ann Binnie

Editor’s note: Mary Ann Binnie is the Nutrition Manager for the Canadian Pork Council (CPC). She can be contacted at binnie@cpc-ccp.com.

At this Canadian grocery store, imported and domestic plant-based meat alternatives are found in the frozen section of the meat department, alongside other processed products. Some stores integrate these options directly within the fresh meat cooler, but the shelf life is shorter. Low sales volumes can lead to waste.

Recent promotion of plant-based protein foods stems from growing international pursuit of ‘sustainable healthy diets’ to address climate change and chronic disease concerns.

However, many plant-based protein products entering the market are highly processed and are arguably not healthier alternatives to animal-based protein foods, such as pork. Makers of simulated meat have used semantics to their advantage, playing up the notion that these products are plant-based and, therefore, somehow better.

Health Canada released dietary guidance in 2019 encouraging Canadians to choose plant-based protein foods more often. The cover of Canada’s Food Guide still includes animal-based proteins – meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk products – however, they are given little prominence compared to previous versions. Additionally, milk products are now considered part of the ‘protein’ food group, along with meat and alternatives. Plant protein sources – such as tofu, lentils, beans, peas, nuts and seeds – make up roughly half of the ‘protein’ group visually.

Impact of plant-based alternatives on Canadian food supply

The evolution of Canada’s Food Guide shows how food groups have changed. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk products were once prominently featured, but their positioning has changed from 1944, 1977, 1992, 2007 to 2019.

In June 2021, Health Canada released its ‘Food and Nutrition Highlights 2020’ annual report. This report provides an overview of what this federal agency is doing to make it easier for Canadians to pursue healthier choices. As part of the report, Health Canada is tracking the Canadian market availability of foods high in nutrients of public health concern – including saturated fat, sugars and sodium – to assess the impact of the agency’s ‘Healthy Eating Strategy’ on the nutritional quality of the Canadian food supply.

Health Canada examined how the Canadian food supply changed after the launch of the current food guide. It looked at the impact of plant-based foods on Canadians’ dietary choices, using recent market research data. Between the launch of the current food guide in January 2019 and December 2020, research showed that 120 new plant-based products entered the Canadian market. Of these new products, they found that 15 per cent were processed meat, fish or egg alternatives; 30 per cent were dairy alternatives; 26 per cent were snack foods; and 11 per cent were desserts.

Many of the new plant-based alternative were high in sodium, saturated fat or sugar, often containing 15 per cent or more of the recommended daily value for these nutrients of concern. The 2020 annual report states: “Although plant-based, many of these products are not in line with Canada’s Food Guide recommendations… More than half of the new plant-based, processed alternatives to meat, fish or eggs were high in sodium… Moreover, more than one-third of dairy alternatives, snacks and processed meat, fish or egg alternatives were high in saturated fat… In addition, the majority of the plant-based desserts were high in sugars and saturated fat.”

There is clearly reason for concern in terms of the health implications of these new food products.  Processed plant-based meat alternatives are often not the healthier options they are marketed to be. This trend is reminiscent of the marketing of lower-fat food products that are often high in sugar, and the marketing of foods made with trans fats following Health Canada’s national dietary guidance to reduce total fat and saturated fat consumption back in the 1990s.

Impact of pork on Canadian diets

Nearly one-third of adult women in Canada are deficient in iron. Consuming red meat – like pork – helps meet this dietary need. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, shown in this magnified blood smear.

A recent study conducted at the University of Toronto found a significant number of Canadian adults do not meet the dietary intake recommendations for several essential nutrients. Study findings noteworthy to meat consumption included:

  • Iron: Nearly 30 per cent of women between the ages of 19- and 50-years-old did not get enough iron from their diet. Iron is critical for women during childbearing years and to prevent anemia – a lack of healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to body tissues.
  • Zinc: Between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of both men and women are deficient in zinc, and the risk of inadequate intake increases with age. Zinc is essential for healthy pregnancies, normal brain function and resistance to infection.
  • Magnesium: Nearly two-thirds of women and half of men are deficient in magnesium. Magnesium is important for blood pressure regulation. More than two-thirds of Canadian seniors have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is the number-one risk factor for stroke.
  • Potassium: The average intake of potassium for all Canadian demographics is considered inadequate. Like magnesium, potassium helps regulate blood pressure.

This study is extremely useful to help us understand meat’s valuable role in the diets of Canadians. Pork is a naturally nutrient-dense protein food that contains several of the nutrients that many Canadians are lacking in their diets. A relatively small portion of pork can go a long way toward helping Canadians meet these specific nutrient needs.

Steering Canadians toward eating more whole, nutrient-dense foods – like pork – and away from highly processed, nutrient-poor foods can help address the nutrient shortfalls identified in the study.

Plant and animal proteins are not equal

Ultra-processed foods – such as simulated meat – can be deceptive in terms of their dietary value. Unlike imitation plant-based products, pork provides a naturally rich and complex nutritional profile, along with complete protein, without the need for additives.

Plant and animal proteins are not nutritionally equivalent. Animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids in amounts that can be used to grow and maintain our bodies. These essential amino acids remain available for absorption and protein synthesis even after digestion. Evidence suggests high quality animal-based proteins stimulate muscle protein synthesis more effectively than plant-based proteins.

Recent studies indicate that there are large differences in the nutrients and metabolites found in ground meat versus plant-based substitutes. As researchers point out, these should not be considered as nutritionally similar or interchangeable, despite comparable nutrition facts.

Processed plant-based veggie patties or ‘grinds’ generally contain added fat in the form of vegetable or coconut oils. If these added fats are grouped together, they may be the largest component by weight.

A substantial body of evidence shows the nutrients in red meat – such as high-quality protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins – play a powerful role in nourishing Canadians, from fueling physical activity and helping manage weight, to developing cognitive skills and aging vibrantly.Pork provides nutrients that can be difficult to obtain in adequate quantities from plant-based foods alone.

A balanced diet, for people and planet

As one of the most nutrient-dense foods available, pork makes an important contribution to the food security and diet quality of Canadians.

The global push to reduce meat consumption has led to an increase in plant-based simulations in response to mounting international calls, public health policy and marketing messages to choose more plant-based proteins to address climate change and chronic disease concerns. However, processed, plant-based, simulated meat products are not necessarily healthier than nutrient-dense, single-ingredient animal protein foods, such as pork.

Most Canadians do not eat enough vegetables, fruits or fibre. So, encouraging more consumption of whole, minimally processed plant foods may provide benefits in terms of the prevention and management of certain chronic diseases. However, increasing plant-based foods does not need to mean replacing meat. In fact, pork adds many essential nutrients to a plant-based diet.

Research indicates that, since animal- and plant-based protein foods differ in their nutrient profiles and make different contributions to diet, they should not be viewed as nutritionally interchangeable. Animal- and plant-based foods provide different nutrients that are complementary. Food synergy makes them better when consumed together.

Villainizing whole foods – like red meat – confuses and distracts from the priority nutrition concerns of Canadians, which are contributing to the rising rates of obesity and other chronic diseases. The age-old advice of eating a balanced diet continues to make sense for most Canadians, and it leaves room on the plate for both animal- and plant-based foods.