The effect of diet on health is the primary reason people across the globe choose plant-based meats although, paradoxically, it’s also the reason that some avoid them. With more than 300 plant-based meat products available in Australian supermarkets, there’s a wide range of processing methods, base ingredients, and formulations on our shelves. Amongst such a range, there will inevitably be variations in nutritional quality.
A 2023 Griffith University study of 3,898 Australians (80% female) found that taste and nutrition were important motivators for repeat purchases of plant-based meats, so it’s critical that manufacturers prioritise them. Due to the inherent makeup of plant-based meats, it’s challenging. Most are made to replicate their conventional equivalent such as sausages, hamburgers, mince, and other utility foods, and sophisticated blends and processes are used to give them their texture and flavours.
Flexitarians (those who vary the regularity and prominence of conventional meat in their diet but don’t eliminate it entirely) are, arguably, the main target consumers for plant-based meat manufacturers. The George Institute for Global Health was curious to know if choosing plant-based meats was a healthy swap. The Institute undertook a study that compared the nutritional panel on the packaging of 132 plant-based meat products with their equivalent conventional meat counterpart. One of the study’s authors, Dr Daisy Coyle, told Food Frontier’s AltProteins 23 conference that the study showed plant-based meats came out on top in almost every aspect of nutrition that they examined. The aspects considered as detrimental to heart health—sodium and saturated fat—were lower in plant-based meats. Plant-based meats were on average 50% lower in saturated fat and 20% lower in sodium (salt) overall. They also had a higher health star rating on average by 1.2 stars (out of 5) and had 200% more fibre; unsurprising as animal meat doesn’t contain any fibre. The study concluded there was no difference in the energy value or protein proportion between the two alternatives. The findings of the study echoed the results identified in Food Frontier’s 2020 nutrition analysis of plant-based meat alternatives, which used similar methodology.
Despite these results, Daisy said manufacturers could consider using less sugar and fortifying products, “Sugar was the only area with room for improvement, it is marginally higher in plant-based meats”. In terms of levels of micro-nutrient fortification, only 12% of plant-based meat products were fortified with iron, vitamin B12 and zinc. “So, if one is relying on meat substitutes alone, they would need to supplement their diet.”
Through its voluntary Healthy Food Partnerships initiative designed to reduce diet-related diseases, the Australian Government is keen to see food manufacturers reduce the amount of salt in processed foods and, while plant-based meats generally contain less salt than their conventional meat counterparts, Daisy thinks there is room for further salt reduction. She expects that the Healthy Food Partnerships initiative will target sodium in plant-based meats in 2023 or 2024.
We need to talk about fibre
Dietary fibre promotes digestion, helps to generate the growth of good gut bacteria, regulates blood sugar levels, lowers levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and, subsequently, supports heart health. It can help maintain a healthy weight by providing a feeling of fullness (preventing over-eating); it can prevent constipation; and it can lower the risk of chronic diet-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and colo-rectal cancers. Fibre is something inherent in any plant-based food, yet it’s not used as a selling point on packaging.
Daisy says the alternative protein industry should be talking about fibre and proudly marketing it on plant-based foods. The recommended daily fibre intake for adults is 25-30 gram, whereas most Australians consume on average between 20 and 25 grams. Food Frontier’s 2020 nutrition analysis found that plant-based meats contain 4.6 grams of fibre per 100g on average. Where diets contain inadequate amounts of fruit and vegetables to meet daily recommended fibre intake, plant-based meats can provide a useful supplement to ensure that consumers are getting enough fibre.
Nutritionist and Head of Research Strategy at Food Frontier, Klara Kalocsay, says talking about fibre isn’t attractive but it’s a real issue and should be discussed more often, “It’s hard for consumers to compare fibre content in products when it’s not a mandatory part of the nutrition information panel; however, fibre has tangible health benefits and there is an opportunity for plant-based meat manufacturers to use this in their education.”
Processed foods and plant-based meats
The Nova classification system organises foods into four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed. Best-selling author of Ultra-Processed People: Why do we all eat stuff that isn’t food . . . and why can’t we stop, Chris van Tulleken, claims that 60% of the diets of people in the UK and the USA are ultra-processed. Daisy Coyle agrees that most of the foods eaten by Australians fit into the ultra-processed category. However, this is also the category into which most, but not all, plant-based meats fit, according to Daisy.
Ultra-processed foods are foods that you can’t replicate at home due to the manufacturing process or the ingredients used not being common and recognisable food products you might find in a home pantry. Daisy says there’s not enough known about the health impacts of ultra-processed foods and expects it to be a much larger area of research soon, although van Tulleken attributes them with our current obesity epidemic. She also says plant-based meats haven’t been around long enough to be included in existing long-term studies. According to Klara, the ultra-processed categorisation is potentially too broad to be useful, as it classifies a wide spectrum of foods without consideration to their nutritional profile. Nevertheless, she agrees that more research needs to be done in this field to give us greater understanding.
How nutritious is cultivated meat?
Is cultivated meat, also known as cultured meat, going to be a healthy option? After all, its major supporting claim is that it is, in fact, ‘real’ meat. Due to the customisable nature of the end product, the industry is optimistic that it can create a nutritional profile that offers the nutritional benefits of animal meat without the potential health risks.
Dr Timothy Olsen from Merck heads up the company’s cultured meat division. He told AltProteins 23 that he expects cultivated meat to offer similar nutritional components to its conventional version because the cells used to produce it are derived from the animal. For example, the healthy fats, like omega fatty acids found in salmon, are anticipated to be present in cultivated salmon meat since it is derived from salmon cells.
He thinks it’s what cultivated meat can leave out which could make it healthier. “In terms of the not so favourable aspects of animal meats, cultivated meat should be able to be tuned to adjust levels of things like cholesterol, and this is very exciting for the industry because we can reimagine what we think of meat and food.” In addition, Timothy says the health benefits that come with producing meat in clean facilities reduces the risk of foodborne illnesses.
Meat alternatives are proving to be heart-healthy options, outperforming their conventional counterparts in several nutritional aspects. Yet challenges remain, with room for improvement in fortification in particular. The silent hero is dietary fibre, abundant in plant-based meats but, as yet, it remains unpromoted. As we navigate a changing food landscape, it’s clear that existing and forthcoming alternative protein substitutes for conventional meat can offer health benefits, and the promise of cultivated meat only goes to show that, in fact, you can have your cake and eat it.