Flawed food science behind alternative protein
There have been musings from the World Economic Forum (WEF) about giving insects a role in our food systems as an alternative protein to meat. The WEF boldly tells us that in the future, "meat will be a special treat, not a staple for the good of the environment and our health."
Claims pushed by the WEF are that consumption of non-meat alternative protein reduces the risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Alternative protein backed by the WEF and academic intelligentsia include plant-based alternatives (soy, peas, lentils, beans), tofu, insects (crickets, worms), algae, mycoprotein (filamentous fungus), and cultured meat (clean meat produced by an in vitro procedure).
We are further told that consumer interest in alternative protein is increasing in countries with economic wealth. But this is hardly true. Take the case of Beyond Meat, Inc. (NASDAQ: BYND) — a North American plant-based protein company.
Its share price history likely reveals true consumer interest. It initially listed at $72 USD back in May 2019, and hit a high of $239.9 in July 2019, but has been hovering at an uninspiring $24 in June 2022. Why? Consumers may be willing to try alternative protein, but they are unlikely to repeat such purchases, and they become increasingly tired of hearing about it.
Soy supposedly represents the most popular and competitively priced type of alternative protein for consumers. It is often claimed that low-fat protein — soy in particular — can improve some cardiovascular disease risk factors. However, the science behind some of these claims was recently evaluated in a National Association of Scholars (NAS) report.
Nutritional epidemiology naïvely relies on statistical associations to make claims about whether a foodstuff benefits or harms health. The NAS report looked at flimsy science methods so often used in nutritional epidemiology to justify government regulation. It evaluated a meta-analysis of soy protein intake and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in blood. LDL is the bad cholesterol. Lower LDL levels imply lower cardiovascular disease risk.
A meta-analysis is a systematic procedure for statistically combining results from multiple studies that address a common research question. It is considered by many, perhaps mistakenly, to be the cream of the cream of the crop in methodologies for synthesizing published research evidence.
Fifty results from 43 randomized trials in humans were combined statistically in the meta-analysis. The meta-analysis claimed that "soy protein lowers LDL cholesterol by a small but significant amount. Our data fit with the advice given to the general public internationally to increase plant protein intake."
The NAS report does not support their claim. In fact, 37 of the 50 results showed that soy protein intake did not lower LDL levels in blood. Only 12 of 50 results showed that soy protein intake lowers LDL levels. One result even showed that soy protein intake increases LDL levels.
It is mind-boggling that one could statistically combine these types of results (most were negative) — all from randomized trials — and yet somehow find that "soy protein lowers LDL cholesterol by a small but significant amount." Sounds much like the flawed science used by drug companies in their randomized trials to justify the efficacy of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
Also notable is the fact that the NAS report could not rule out research integrity violations as explanations for results from some of the randomized trials showing soy protein intake lowers LDL levels. These types of violations may include anything from bias (e.g., alteration of research findings), misapplication of statistical methods, all the way to data fraud and fabrication. Without having independent access to the original data, it is impossible to confirm what these trials actually show.
If science behind one of the most popular types of alternative proteins for consumers — soy — in published literature is flawed, what can be said about science behind less popular alternatives like insects? In truth, it will take a long time to win the public's interest in alternative protein over meat using flawed science. Our guess is never.
S. Stanley Young is the CEO of CGStat in Raleigh, North Carolina and is the director of the National Association of Scholars' Shifting Sands Project. Warren Kindzierski is a retired college professor in St Albert, Alberta.