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Meat alternatives might not be so healthy


Filip Vukasin


19/01/2023 4:27:11 PM

New research shows most plant-based meat alternatives are high in sugar and low in fortified micronutrients.

Plant-based meat.
Plant-based meat alternatives have a higher sugar content than traditional meat.

According to a Choice survey in 2021, 2% of Australians were vegan, 5% were vegetarian and 11% of Australians were considering becoming vegan in the next five years.
 
In 2019, Australians spent more than $150 million on plant-based meat alternatives and by 2030, it is estimated that domestic sales from the plant-based food sector will boom to $3 billion.
 
Research published in Nutrition and Dietetics shines a light on what we ingest when we eat plant-based meat alternatives and shows that although they have a higher Health Star Rating and more fibre compared to meat, they also have a higher sugar content.
 
Lead author from The George Institute for Global Health, Maria Shahid, told newsGP flavour is the likely reason for this, and adds that meat analogues can still be a healthy substitute for someone who consumes a lot of processed meat equivalents such as sausages and burger patties.
 
‘However, meat analogues should still be consumed in moderation as they are classified as ultra-processed foods and further research is needed to determine the long-term health effects of consuming these new products over an extended period of time,’ she said.
 
This advice contrasts with the perception that many people have about plant-based meat alternatives, nutrition scientist and dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan told newsGP.
 
‘The plant-based title is being used as a bit of a health halo,’ she said.
 
‘Lollies are plant-based too at the end of the day, so plant-based does not always equal healthy.’
 
She says the science behind some of these products is impressive and that technology will play a major role in helping solve the problems of feeding the world in a sustainable way.
 
‘However, many of these products lack the nutrients found in meat and are high in sodium, saturated fat and sometimes sugar or refined starch,’ she said.
 
Dr McMillan says some people also choose plant-based diets in the belief that it is better for the environment.
 
‘The idea that all we need do is eat more plants and less or no meat is overly simplistic and does not solve our problems with feeding the world,’ she said.
 
‘Things like biodiversity loss, soil erosion, deforestation, chemical run-offs in waterways [and] impact on animal life to name but a few are not solved by eating plants instead of animals.
 
‘In Australia, research from the CSIRO has shown that for us as individuals the biggest thing we can do to improve our dietary environmental footprint is to reduce our food waste. Second, we need to eat more whole foods and less ultra-processed food – in line with our dietary guidelines.
 
‘Going 100% plant-based is not key.’
 
The researchers investigated 790 regular meat and plant-based products available in Australian supermarkets, identifying that only 12% of plant-based meat alternatives were fortified with iron, vitamin B12 and zinc, which are naturally found in meat.
 
Dr Jessica Danaher, dietitian and senior lecturer in nutrition at RMIT, told newsGP the lack of fortification is not necessarily a cause for concern.
 
‘It is important to highlight that this research only reported on the presence and extent of fortification,’ she said.
 
‘The authors did not analyse the amount of these micronutrients existing naturally in the food products. Manufacturers aren’t legally required to add [this information] on their packaging.’
 
She says plant-based meat analogues made with beans, legumes, tofu and vegetable-based ingredients likely already naturally contain important micronutrients such as iron and zinc, ‘albeit, in smaller quantities compared to animal-origin meats’.
 
‘Mandatory fortification in Australia occurs in response to a significant public health need and involves food manufacturers being required to add certain vitamins or minerals to a specified food or foods,’ Dr Danaher said.
 
‘For example, manufacturers must add vitamin D to edible oil spreads like margarine, and thiamine and folic acid to wheat flour used for making bread.
 
‘Voluntary fortification on the other hand allows food manufacturers to choose what vitamins and minerals they add to food.
 
‘Food manufacturers wishing to appeal to consumers with nutritionally complete products should consider fortification, where relevant, as the market for plant-based meat alternatives increases.’
 
Dr Danaher says those with restricted diets, such as a vegetarian or vegan diet, may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies if not consuming these micronutrients from plant-based foods.
 
She recommends vegetarian and vegan-friendly sources such as eggs, dairy products, beans, lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, whole grains, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, seeds, nuts and supplements.
 
‘Before taking any vitamin or mineral supplements, [patients should] speak with a doctor or an accredited practising dietitian,’ she said.
 
‘While vitamins can supplement your diet, a “food first” approach which aims for a healthy balanced diet for avoiding nutritional deficiencies is best.’
 
Meanwhile, Ms Shahid suggests people follow a wholefood-sourced diet but for those that enjoy meat alternatives, tools can be helpful in assessing their health ratings.
 
‘If your patients continue to choose these products over wholefood sources of plant-proteins, then tools such as the Health Star Rating or the FoodSwitch app can be used to help guide food purchases,’ she said.
 
‘Although healthier on average, we found that the nutrient content of meat analogues, like any other food group, will range in terms of its overall quality, so using these tools can help us identify the food products that are lowest in sodium and sugar.’
 
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