Plant-based meat substitutes

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 17 May 2023.
Tagged: healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, nutrition, wellness

Plant-based meat substitutes
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What do YOU think about plant-based meat substitutes? Veggie-loaded burgers? All-vegetable rissoles? Meatless Mondays?

Yet another study looking into what’s on the shelf in Australia has hit the bleachers. And it’s not that good for meat substitutes.

The research shows that, while plant-based meat products are generally healthier than processed meat equivalents, they can also be higher in sugars and often lack important nutrients. 

Meat analogues had a higher Health Star Rating, lower mean saturated fat and sodium content, but higher total sugars content. 

The researchers looked at more than 790 products – including burgers, meatballs, mince, sausages, bacon, coated poultry, plain poultry, and meat with pastry products – and compared them to their plant-based equivalents. There were 658 fresh meat, chicken and seafood cuts analysed. 

Of the 132 plant-based meat substitutes analysed, only 12 per cent were fortified with key micronutrients that are found in meat: iron, vitamin B12 and zinc. Most meat alternatives are also ultra-processed. 

Solely relying on meat alternatives as a direct replacement for meat could lead to iron, zinc and B12 deficiencies over time, if you are not boosting your intake of these essential nutrients from other sources or taking supplements. 

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Healthier alternatives would be foods made from legumes, such as tofu, hummus and falafel, as well as lean unprocessed meats, chicken and seafood.

What are plant-based meat substitutes?

Plant-based meats are designed to mimic meat products and act as a substitute for meat protein.

They are commonly made from plant-based vegetable protein (soy protein, wheat protein, pea protein or a combination) or fermentation-based fungus protein (mycoprotein).

Similar to the grains and legumes research

The Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) investigated plant-based meats in 2019. After buying meat analogues from four metropolitan Sydney supermarkets (Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA), the GLNC assessed their nutrition quality. They found:

  • Meat analogues generally had a higher Health Star Rating than red meats. However, their nutrient content varied. Most meat analogues were also ultra-processed and few were fortified with key micronutrients found in meat.
  • Compared with meat, plant-based options were generally lower in kilojoules, total and saturated fat, but higher in carbohydrate, sugars and dietary fibre. Only 4 per cent of products were low in sodium (products ranged from 58 to 1200 mg/100 g).
  • Less than a quarter of products (24 per cent) were fortified with vitamin B12, less than 20 per cent with iron, and 18 per cent with zinc. Health Star Ratings featured on about half of the products, which ranged from 3.6 to 4.4 stars.

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The bottom line

Don’t cut it out, just cut down. Plant-based meat substitutes are NOT the answer for health. They lack iron, zinc and B12 – three key nutrients we get from meat and chicken. Few are fortified and most are ultra-processed – something that’s not good in nutrition. They are mimicking fresh meat – which they don’t do fully! While you may be trying to eat more plant-based foods, why would a vegetarian or vegan want to eat something that LOOKS like meat? Healthier alternatives would be foods made from legumes, lean unprocessed meats, chicken and seafood.