How healthy is plant-based meat?
Plant-based meat alternatives such as burgers, mince and nuggets are marketed as being a more sustainable, healthy alternative to meat. But are they all good for you? As No Meat May enters its second week, we check in with the experts to find out.
Replacing meat with foods like legumes, beans and grains is nothing new. In fact, societies around the world have eaten plant-based diets for millennia. However, in recent years plant-based diets have moved beyond incorporating a wide array of vegetable products. Now we’re seeing a boom in commercially manufactured and processed plant-based meat alternatives, created specifically to mimic the taste and texture of meat. But are these alternatives always healthier? Or are they just another form of processed food?
According to Susan McLeod, a nutritionist and lecturer in Human Nutrition at La Trobe University, plant-based meat alternatives can be a healthier choice, but this depends on what ingredients are being used, and how the product has been made.
“If it’s made using minimally processed, high-protein, high-fibre foods, then that’s going to be a fantastic alternative,” McLeod says. “For instance, meat doesn’t provide fibre. Meat alternatives can also contain a range of vitamins and minerals that are different to what meat can deliver. However, a lot of these products are heavily processed. This means there can be the potential for them to have increased levels of carcinogens, or nutrients might be destroyed during processing. Some products can also contain high levels of sodium.”
The best thing you can do when shopping for plant-based meat products is to read the label. Check to see if it’s high in salt. The recommended maximum per day is 2000mg of sodium, or 5g of salt. Also check to see if it has a long list of artificial ingredients. You want to aim for something that’s as close to a whole food as possible.
Also look for the base ingredients. Things like lentils, beans, chickpeas, quinoa and brown rice boost the fibre content. Another commonly used base ingredient is mushrooms, such as the shiitake mushrooms used in Fable products.
“Mushroom is high in protein,” McLeod says. “It’s also a source of vitamin D and B vitamins. And it has that meaty flavour to it. Just make sure you check. What is the main ingredient in the product? And think about what that ingredient is contributing to your overall diet.”
The natural alternative
If you’re looking for an alternative to meat, you don’t necessarily need to go down the plant-based meat road. There are plenty of highly nutritious plant-based whole foods that can provide you with the nutrients your body needs.
“The reason we eat animal foods is because they contain what we call ‘complete proteins’, McLeod says. “This means they contain all the essential amino acids, which the body can’t make. Most plant proteins are not complete proteins. But soy, quinoa and buckwheat are.
“However, you don’t necessarily need to only eat complete proteins. Instead, in order to get all of the proteins you need, you can eat a variety. For instance, if you eat grains and legumes, you’ll get all the essential amino acids you need.”
A work in progress
In a recent study, researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Massachusetts, US, analysed the nutritional and safety profile of plant-based meats. They found there were several potential challenges associated with food safety and nutrition. These include chemical and microbial contamination of ingredients and food adulteration.
“Meat alternatives are a large, growing industry,” says lead researcher Dr Diana Bogueva. “It’s important that issues like food additives, allergens and potential reductions in food quality are all considered when designing the next generation of plant-based foods. Plant-based diets need to be safe and nutritious, while also being good for the environment.”
The researchers note that plant-based alternatives are the right direction for minimising climate change, carbon footprints and land clearing. However, there’s an onus on commercial manufacturers to develop alternatives that don’t compromise on nutrition.
“But these products are getting better all the time,” McLeod says. “They’re getting better in taste, flavour, colour; they’re even improving in their nutrient content.”
Plants for the planet
With the huge range of plant-based meat products now available – and more turning up every week – consumers who want to cut down on their meat consumption but not miss out on the experience of eating meat now have plenty of options to choose from.
“I think it’s terrific that people have that choice,” McLeod says. “They might not want to eat meat, but they may want something that looks like meat and provides a source of protein. So I like the concept of it. But I would caution people to always read the label.”
Ultimately, eating less meat and more plant products – whether they be plant-based meat alternatives or whole foods – is better for both our health and for the environment.
“Adopting a plant-based diet is among one of the most powerful things a person can do for the climate,” Dr Bogueva says. “It’s been estimated that if highest-income nations adopted a more plant-centric diet, it could cut greenhouse emissions by around 61 percent.”
For meat-free meal inspiration, check out these recipes from VegKit. You can also try these plant-based versions of your favourite meals, these jackfruit recipes and this tofu and mushroom “neatball” massaman curry. We’ve also got these recipes using Fable plant-based meat. Or whip up dinner and dessert with these recipes.