Strong demand for plant-based foods has led Meatless Farm, founded in 2016, to become the UK’s leading vegan meat producer. The company announced recently the closing of a $31 million funding round to support its global growth strategy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for this and other alternative meat brands on the global marketplace due to increased consumer interest in plant-based alternatives. New interest in meatless meals coincides with recent research out of Stanford Medicine which concludes that swapping out red meat for plant-based meat alternatives can lower some cardiovascular risk factors.
Is Meatless Meat Actually Better for You?
“There’s been this sort of backlash against these new meat alternatives,” Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and senior author of the study, 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?”
30 participants in the study were assigned them to 2 different diets, each one for 8 weeks. One diet called for at least 2 daily servings of meat — the options available were primarily red meat — and one called for at least 2 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.
Gardner calls TMAO “an emerging risk factor,” as medical trials show that there is a connection between higher levels of TMAO and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Yet that connection has yet to be definitively proved. Two precursors to TMAO — carnitine and choline — are found in red meat, so the likelihood is that individuals who regularly eat beef, pork or lamb will have higher levels of TMAO.
“At this point we cannot be sure that TMAO is a causal risk factor or just an association,” Gardner said.
However, he sees a reason to pay attention to TMAO indications. In the past few years, studies have shown that high levels of TMAO are consistent with increased inflammation and blood clotting, among other health concerns.
Gardner points to another study in which researchers found that people with elevated TMAO had a 60% higher risk for adverse cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack. That study concluded that elevated concentrations of TMAO and its precursors were associated with increased risks of MACE and all‐cause mortality independently of traditional risk factors.
While it makes sense that eating plants is healthier overall than eating red meat (author’s note: I haven’t eaten red meat since 1980), many of the new vegan meat alternatives have relatively high levels of saturated fat and added sodium. They’re considered highly processed foods — made with food isolates and extracts as opposed to whole beans or chopped mushrooms. These are the exact factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease risk.
In Gardner’s study, the researchers observed that participants who ate the red-meat diet during the first 8-week phase had an increase in TMAO, while those who ate the plant-based diet first did not. But something peculiar happened when the groups switched diets. Those who transitioned from meat to plants had a decrease in TMAO levels, which was expected. Those who switched from plant to meat, however, did not see an increase in TMAO.
“It was pretty shocking; we had hypothesized that it wouldn’t matter what order the diets were in,” Gardner said. It turns out that there are bacterial species responsible for the initial step of creating TMAO in the gut. These species are thought to flourish in people whose diets are red-meat heavy but perhaps not in those who avoid meat.
“So for the participants who had the plant-based diet first, during which they ate no meat, we basically made them vegetarians, and, in so doing, may have inadvertently blunted their ability to make TMAO,” he said.
Whether this type of approach could be used as a strategy for decreasing cardiovascular disease risk remains to be seen.
Outside of TMAO, health benefits conveyed from plant-based alternatives extended to weight and levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Both groups saw LDL cholesterol drop an average 10 milligrams per deciliter; that’s statistically and clinically significant. Participants also lost an average of 2 pounds weight during the plant-based portion of the diet.
The Stanford Medicine study was funded by an unrestricted gift from Beyond Meat, which makes vegan meat alternatives. The company had no input into the study contexts.
A Case Study: Meatless Farm & the Rising Popularity of Vegan Meat
Meatless Farm has seen its sales growth go up nearly 180% per annum, according to the Vegconomist. This rise points to a fundamental change in the perception of plant-based alternatives.
Part of the company’s allure is connected to a recent popular advertising campaign in the UK with its M***F*** tagline. Michael Hunter, chief growth officer at Meatless Farm, said that throughout the COVID-19 lockdown period, more and more people have been trying or considering making the swap to plant-based foods at least once a week.
“We felt the nation needed a bit of a lift as it’s been a tough time for everyone, so more than ever we wanted to create something light-hearted and fun that consumers would remember when they are looking for alternatives to meat.” Meatless Farm’s plant-based range is high in protein, a good source of fiber, gluten-free, and contains zero cholesterol.
Meatless Farm’s $31 million investment round, which follows a previous round of $17 million, comes from both existing and new private and family office investors, all of whom indicate that they have a commitment to sustainable investing. The investment will be directed to expansion of existing markets, product lines, and further the entry into newly-developed markets.
Meatless Farm products are now on sale in all four major UK supermarket chains, in Whole Foods in the US, and in several other countries around the world. The company was announced as one of the finalists for the first ever World Plant Based Awards and has placed in the Best Plant Business category, alongside Infinite Foods, Gardein, and LoveRaw.
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