Plant-based alternatives to meat, be careful of mycotoxins

Several international studies have highlighted potential health risks from mycotoxins in plant-based meat alternatives.

Plant-based meat substitutes containing mycotoxins can be toxic. The science is in no doubt. Let’s start with Italy. A group of researchers from the University of Parma recently analysed the presence of mycotoxins in protein raw materials used to make plant-based meat substitutes, such as legumes and cereal gluten. All the studies came to a worrying conclusion: when meat is replaced in the diet by these plant-based alternatives, there is a high risk of developing some forms of cancer due to the high levels of certain mycotoxins found in plant-based protein ingredients.

How a change in diet towards plant-based alternatives can pose serious health risks

When it comes to replacing meat with plant-based alternatives, proponents of these products extol the supposed benefits without questioning the possible negative effects. For this reason, a series of scientific studies funded by the European Food Risk Assessment Fellowship Programme (EU-FORA) of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) proposed to assess the risks of switching from a meat-based diet to one containing plant-based imitations of meat. In all the studies in question, the plant-based meat alternatives analysed were found to be contaminated with mycotoxins. In this context, EFSA has published a summary of the research in the EFSA Journal, with a complete overview of how a change in diet towards plant-based alternatives can pose serious health risks, calculating estimates of the different types of tumours for the Italian population.

The research programme began with a systematic review to analyse the prevalence of natural toxins in Europe’s most common plant-based alternatives, providing insight into their presence and concentration in plant-based imitations of meat products. In particular, mixtures of mycotoxins with dangerous toxic effects were found in several soy foods.

Three studies, one worrying situation

The first study of the research programme aims to fill the gaps on this topic by assessing the risk of replacing meat with plant-based alternatives in terms of exposure to mycotoxins. The researchers, therefore, considered a complete replacement of meat consumption with soy-based imitations of meat products, and the exposure to aflatoxin B1, a potent liver carcinogen, and ochratoxin A, with its nephrotoxic activity, was assessed. The results showed a worrying situation: the total replacement of meat with soy in the diet resulted in a high presence of aflatoxin B1, with a consequent increase in the risk of liver cancer and potential risk of kidney cancer, with a loss of 12,080 years of healthy life per country.

Mixtures of #mycotoxins with toxic effects have been found in various #PlantBased foods based on #soy: a high presence of #aflatoxin B1. Click To Tweet

The second study, carried out by the same authors as part of the project, analysed 13 samples of imitation of meat products based on soy, peas, chickpeas, lupins and seitan using a multi-mycotoxins method. In this way, the exposure of Italian consumers to all types of mycotoxins, such as aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, fumonisins and zearalenone, was assessed. All the samples were found to be contaminated with one or more mycotoxins, and simulating a total replacement of meat by these products resulted in a very high-risk exposure, with serious health problems such as impaired liver function and kidney cancer. Therefore, all the project results paint a worrying picture, showing the presence of mycotoxins in plant-based alternatives to meat and a significant deterioration in health when these completely replace meat in our diets.

To complete the picture, another recent peer-reviewed study confirms the health risks of consuming plant-based meat alternatives. In particular, this study focused on the co-presence of sixteen mycotoxins in 105 meat alternatives made from wheat, pulses and vegetables in Italy. Cumulative exposure to several mycotoxins has revealed significant health risks, including cytotoxicity, immune system interference, genotoxicity and carcinogenicity. Mycotoxins have been detected in significant percentages in legumes, vegetables, wheat, and gluten, commonly used as ingredients in plant-based meat alternatives. These foods pose a potential threat to consumers, especially vegetarians and vegans.

When replacing #meat with #PlantBased alternatives, the risk of developing some forms of #cancer is high, due to the high levels of some #mycotoxins. Click To Tweet

Hyper-processed plant-based products harm health

Previous studies have shown that these hyper-processed plant-based products harm health due to the high level of industrial transformation to turn vegetables into something similar to meat, full of additives, sugars and modified starches, refined oils, salt and hydrogenated fats. Their consumption has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, ischaemia, heart attacks, strokes, premature ageing and premature death. Mycotoxin contamination further confirms that consumption of these products is unhealthy.

Considering the presence of mycotoxins in these foods and the trend towards consuming plant products as a substitute for meat, the authors argue that the regulations should be updated and the products should be properly regulated based on the risks associated with their consumption. The authors conclude that a change in our eating habits towards plant-based meat alternatives could dangerously increase exposure to the toxins present in these products and that it is, therefore, necessary for policymakers in the European Commission to establish regulations with maximum limits for contaminants found in vegetables to guarantee food safety for consumers.

Agronomist, nutritional consultant and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.