Eating less meat is increasingly seen as a healthier, more ethical option. This is leading to growing numbers of flexitarian consumers looking for plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) to replace at least some of the animal meat they consume. Popular PBMA products amongst flexitarians, including plant-based mince, burgers, sausages and meatballs, are often perceived as low-quality, ultra-processed foods. However, we argue that the mere industrial processing of ingredients of plant origin does not make a PBMA product ultra-processed by default. To test our hypothesis, we conducted a randomised controlled trial to assess the changes to the gut microbiota of a group of 20 participants who replaced several meat-containing meals per week with meals cooked with PBMA products and compared these changes to those experienced by a size-matched control. Stool samples were subjected to 16S rRNA sequencing. The resulting raw data was analysed in a compositionality-aware manner, using a range of innovative bioinformatic methods. Noteworthy changes included an increase in butyrate metabolising potential-chiefly in the 4-aminobutyrate/succinate and glutarate pathways-and in the joint abundance of butyrate-producing taxa in the intervention group compared to control. We also observed a decrease in the Tenericutes phylum in the intervention group and an increase in the control group. Based on our findings, we concluded that the occasional replacement of animal meat with PBMA products seen in flexitarian dietary patterns can promote positive changes in the gut microbiome of consumers.
Keywords: flexitarian; flexitarianism; gut microbiome; gut microbiota; meat alternatives; meat substitutes; plant protein; plant-based diets; plant-based meat alternatives; ultra-processed foods.