Is plant-based meat any better for you than the real thing?

The availability of meat-free sausages, burgers and bacon has skyrocketed in the past decade, but is plant-based meat actually healthier?

More than 250 plant-based meat alternative products are available in Australian supermarkets, roughly triple the amount compared to 10 years ago.

It makes sense considering the rise of flexitarians, with one in three Australians saying they’ve consciously reduced their meat consumption recently.

And when you ask consumers to “rate” these products, 45 per cent of people believe plant-based meats, known as “meat analogues”, are healthier and more nutritious than actual meat.

So, are they?

How plant-based meat compares to real meat

New research designed to compare meat analogues – which are often made from vegetable protein, like soy, wheat or pea protein or a fermentation-based fungus protein called mycoprotein – with their equivalent meat products, like bacon, burgers and sausages, sheds some light.

“What stood out was that plant-based meat analogues came out on top in terms of their Health Star Rating and nutrient content for almost all the nutrients we assessed,” lead author of the study, Maria Shahid from The George Institute for Global Health, says.

While the protein content was similar, plant-based meat analogues had, on average, significantly less saturated fat and sodium, as well as more fibre, than meat products.

“A recent study in the UK had found that meat analogues had a higher sodium content, so it was great to see this is not the case in Australia.”

So should we all be eating more plant-based meat?

As far as your health’s concerned? Not so fast.

“The most important takeaway from this research is probably to consume meat analogues in moderation as, whilst they are healthier than processed meats, they are ultimately classed as ultra-processed foods,” Maria explains.

Dietitian Milly Smith says this means being mindful about when – and why – you’re eating them.

“If people are eating plant-based meat products, or ‘mock meats’, as substitutes for processed meat products, which the Australian dietary guidelines classify as discretionary foods, then that’s probably going to deliver a health benefit,” Milly says.

“But there are much more nutrient-dense, not to mention cheaper, plant-based, protein-rich foods that people should consider and consume on a regular basis, if their aim is to reduce their meat intake overall.”

Maria agrees, saying that a plant-based meat analogue isn’t the equivalent of fresh, unprocessed meat.

“In this example,” she says, “lean, unprocessed meats would be the healthier choice, as our research found that most meat analogues are ultra-processed and not fortified with the micronutrients found in meat.”

In fact, of the 132 plant-based meat analogues the study analysed, only 12 per cent were fortified with iron, vitamin B12 and zinc, key micronutrients essential for health that are found in meat.

Tips to make healthier eating choices

On the back of this new research, here are three things to keep in mind.

Limiting processed meat is wise.

“We know that excessive consumption of processed meats has been linked to various types of cancer, as well as being high in saturated fats and salts, so it makes sense that these foods fall firmly into the discretionary basket,” Maria says.

Eat plant-based meat analogues in moderation

“What’s needed next is research that examines the long-term health effects of consuming these foods over an extended period of time,” Maria says.

“Both meat-eating and vegetarian or vegan consumers should be aware that there are healthier sources of traditional, less processed plant sources of protein, such as tofu, falafel, beans and legumes, that can be incorporated into our diet and provide us with a range of micronutrients.”

Do your research

Maria says that although meat analogues are healthier on average than meat product equivalents, it’s not always the case.

“There are products out there that don’t score well in terms of nutritional content,” she says.

“Tools like the Health Star Rating or the FoodSwitch app are useful point-of-purchase tools for consumers to make healthier choices if purchasing these products.”

Written by Karen Fittall.