There’s a growing range of plant-based meat products to choose from, but how healthy are such products, really? They may be healthier overall than actual meat, but they can also be higher in sugar while lacking some of the nutrients we get from meat, a new study has found.
For their study, published Wednesday in Nutrition & Dietetics, a team of researchers had a closer look at the nutritional quality of the plant-based meats available in major supermarkets in Australia as compared to actual meat products.
Many people who have been looking for ways to reduce their meat consumption go for plant-based alternatives, which are essentially created to mimic meat. These products have grown in popularity in recent years. But there is the question of exactly how healthy they really are, and if they can provide the nutrients that actual meat provides.
To shed light on the matter, the researchers assessed 790 products across various categories such as burgers, bacon, coated poultry and meat with pastry. Of the products they tested, 132 were plant-based, while 658 were meat. They assessed these using Australia’s Health Star Rating, looking at factors such as protein, energy, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars per 100 grams of the product.
In general, they found that the plant-based meat products had a “healthier nutritional profile” than meat, according to The George Institute. For instance, they had on average lower mean saturated fat and lower sodium as well, while being higher in fiber than meat. The products also had similar protein content.
However, the plant-based meat analogs had higher total sugar content. Furthermore, both products had a “similar proportion of ultra-processed products,” with the rate being 84% for meat analogs and 89% for meat.
And regarding their nutrient content, only 12.1% of the plant-based meats were fortified with the essential micronutrients — such as iron and zinc — that people get from meat.
Overall, it appears that, while the plant-based meats were generally healthier than their meat counterparts, they may also come with caveats. The study’s lead author, Maria Shahid of The George Institute, recommends other healthier options such as “lean unprocessed meats and legumes, beans and falafel.”
“More research is needed to understand the health impact of these foods,” the authors wrote.
As such, people may want to be a bit warier of just relying on one type of product for their nutritional needs.
“(I)t isn’t as simple as a straight swap — 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,” Dr. Daisy Cole of the George Institute, one of the authors of the current study, said in the institute’s release.
In 2021, for instance, a team of researchers also found stark differences in meat and meat alternative products’ nutritional content, suggesting that they may be complementary to each other rather than interchangeable.
“Until we know more about the health impacts of plant-based meat analogs and have recommendations on how to include them as part of a healthy balanced diet, its best to eat them in moderation along with other plant-based proteins such as bean patties, falafel and tofu, or if you are not vegetarian or vegan, unprocessed lean meats and seafood,” Cole said.