Red meat trumps plant-based

Results from ground-breraking New Zealand research have shown red meat is a better source of protein than a processed plant-based alternative.

In Business8 Minutes

RESULTS FROM GROUND-BREAKING New Zealand research have shown red meat is a better source of protein than a processed plant-based alternative.

Findings from a human clinical trial undertaken for the Pasture Raised Advantage research programme found meat delivers more of the essential protein building blocks compared to a plant-based alternative.

The four-stage multidisciplinary project is exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of eating pasture-raised beef and lamb as part of a balanced diet, compared to grain- finished beef or a plant-based alternative. The research is a collaboration between researchers at AgResearch, the University of Auckland, Massey University and the Riddet Institute.

In this first of two clinical trials, 30 participants aged 20-34 years were fed breakfast on four different days and their blood, digestive symptoms and mood were monitored for four hours immediately following the meal.

Breakfast was a burrito that contained a single serving of a different protein each day; pasture-raised beef, grain-finished beef, lamb and a plant-based alternative – served in random order to each participant across the four days.

Dr Andrea Braakhuis from the University of Auckland heads up the team of nutrition scientists responsible for the study. They measured the nutrients in the blood of the participants and saw a significant difference in the type and amounts of amino acids that come from the digestion of the protein of red meat compared and the processed alternative.

“Amino acids from red meat were of greater biological value and better absorbed by the body.”

Braakhuis says these clinical outcomes reflect the results of laboratory experiments carried out on the same foods by Massey University (led by Dr Lovedeep Kaur). Red meat was better digested in the laboratory simulator conditions than the plant-based alternative.

“Our project is showing that red meat is probably a better source of protein for the body than highly processed plant-based products promoted as meat alternatives.”

Plant-based requires scrutiny

AgResearch senior scientist Dr Scott Knowles says the new generation of plant- based meat analogues are formulated to mimic the taste and basic nutrient composition of meat. But very little is known yet about their nutritional quality and health benefits.

He says plant-based alternatives are produced very differently from pasture-raised livestock and they’re marketed as having advantages in environmental footprint and sustainability. Those credentials are still being scrutinised.

A second clinical trial, nearing completion, is looking at the longer-term impacts of eating a diet that includes moderate amounts of red meat.

Over 10 weeks, 80 participants are following either a flexitarian diet containing pasture-raised beef and lamb or a vegetarian diet that includes various plant-based alternatives.

“This is the first clinical trial of its kind to compare the effects of flexitarian and vegetarian lifestyles on a range of outcomes of people’s health and wellbeing,” Braakhuis says.

“We’re hoping it will fill some gaps in our understanding about the nutritional value of pasture-raised red meat in a balanced diet.”

In addition to chemical and blood measurements, researchers are using a dietary app to collect food diaries and are monitoring the impact of the diets on physical responses in the body, such as weight, sleep and exercise. They are also monitoring psychological and well-being factors such as mood and satisfaction to understand the full impact of the diet on individuals’ health.

Much of the global research on the environmental aspects of producing and eating red meat has been based on intensive grain-finished farming systems and often the nutritional and health studies have used meat that is processed or consumed in excess of recommended dietary guidelines. In contrast, the research programme is looking at modest amount of fresh red meat included as part of a balanced diet, particularly red meat raised in NZ where the animals are free-range, predominantly pasture- based and have zero treatment with antibiotics and hormones.

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The benefits of genetic tools

Looks can be deceiving and a recent trial comparing the performance of two lines of rams over commercial two-tooths highlights the perils of judging rams on looks alone.

The trial, carried out over the last couple of years on Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s future farm Lanercost, compared two lines of rams (Line A and Line B) that were similar in most breeding value traits, including growth rates.

Phenotypically, the line A rams were a better-looking bunch with a higher standard in terms of body condition and general presentation.

Line B however, had a higher maternal worth index, primarily made up by differences in reproduction (which was higher) and adult body size (which was lower).

The rams were mated together to two-tooth ewes and the resulting twin-born lambs were EID-tagged and DNA-sampled to determine sire parentage (Line A or Line B). These daughters were run together as one mob and mated at eight months old.

At pregnancy scanning, there was a 30 percentage point difference between the two sire lines with the hoggets sired by line B rams scanning 125%, while the hoggets sired by line A rams scanned 95%.

If all the 950 ewe hoggets were bred by line B rams there would potentially be 284 more lambs born.

B+LNZ’s general manager farming excellence Dan Brier, says this highlights the power of using the genetic analysis tools available to farmers, such as maternal worth indices and making use of estimated breeding values when selecting rams.

“I would suggest that anyone who wasn’t aware of the genetic information behind these rams and judged them on looks alone, would have predicted that the progeny of the line A rams would perform at a higher level.”

Brier says an extra 284 lambs would contribute significantly to the bottom line of a farming business and this is without any changes in management.

“It’s simply about making use of the genetic tools available to help maximise the productivity and profitability of your ewe flock.”

Go to to find breeders and rams with the best genetics for your environment.

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