Plant based meats might be healthier than the animal variety, but are they actually healthy?
They might look and taste like the real thing, and Australian research shows plant-based meats contain less saturated fat, less salt and more fibre – than their animal equivalents.
On the flip side, research by the George Institute for Global Health found faux meats tended be higher in sugar and lacked key nutrients such as iron, vitamin B12 and zinc found in real meat.
It’s the largest and most recent Australian study comparing the nutritional value of plant-based meats.
“We’re seeing plant-based analogues for so many different kinds of products at the moment – everything from bacon, sausages, minces and nuggets – it’s a fast-growing area in the market,” lead author Maria Shahid tells Cosmos.
“But we also noticed that there’s just not much information out there on their nutritional quality. So, we thought we would try and assess how these products compare in terms of the nutritional quality, if we are comparing directly to the meat equivalents.”
The Institute analysed 132 plant-based meat products available in Aussie supermarkets, and 658 meat analogues. These included burgers, meatballs, mince, sausages, bacon, chicken, and meat with pastry. The nutritional values were compared using the Institute’s FoodSwitch database and the Australian Government’s Health Star Rating system.
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While plant- and animal-based products differed nutritionally, they did contain similar amounts of protein and similar levels of processing, the study found.
“Both plant-based and processed meats mostly fall into the ultra-processed category, so this raises concerns about their role in a healthy diet,” says Shahid.
Only 12% of the plant-based products were fortified with micronutrients iron, vitamin B12 and zinc.
The findings suggest that plant-based meats are a healthier choice for consumers who eat a lot of processed meat products. Better alternatives, particularly for vegetarian and vegan consumers, would be traditional sources of plant protein like tofu, falafel, beans and legumes, Shahid says.
Tools like the Health Star Rating, or the FoodSwitch app can help consumers looking to make a healthier choice in the supermarket.
The George Institute was founded in 1999 in Australia, with the support of the University of Sydney Medical School, to reduce the escalating burden of non-communicable diseases and injury around the world. The Institute releases an annual ‘State of the Food Supply Report’ for Australia.