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Plant-Based Meat Products May Lack Essential Micronutrients

Plant-based meat, a stack of burgers.
Credit: LikeMeat on Unsplash.
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A new study from the George Institute for Global Health suggests that plant-based meat products might be higher in sugar and lack key nutrients compared to real meat. The research is published in Nutrition & Dietetics.

Increased consumption of plant-based meat products

Giving “Veganuary” a go? Then you might have been adding plant-based meat products – also known as “meat analogs” – to your meals as a convenient substitute for the real thing. The market for such products is expanding exponentially, with an estimated worth of ~$7.5 billion in 2021 – a figure that is set to climb to ~$15.8 billion by 2028.

A variety of different plant-based meat alternatives are now available on the food market. Most are manufactured using plant-based proteins (such as wheat, soy, pea or rice protein) or mycoproteins. While these products might be viewed as “generally healthier” than meat, research exploring their overall health impact is limited. “Both plant-based and processed meats mostly fall into the ultra-processed category, so this raises concerns about their role in a healthy diet,” says Maria Shahid, data analyst in the Food Policy Division at the George Institute for Global Health.

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Shahid is the lead author of a new study that assessed and compared the nutrient content and nutritional quality of plant-based meat analogs and their equivalent meat products in Australia.

Analyzing the nutrient constitution of plant-based and processed meats

Using the institutes’ “FoodSwitch” database, Shahid and colleagues analyzed 790 products across eight food categories (132 plant-based, and 658 meat). “Nutritional quality was assessed using the Health Star Rating, energy (kJ), protein (g), saturated fat (g), sodium (mg), total sugars (g) and fiber content (g) per 100 g, and level of food processing using the NOVA classification,” the authors write. The categories of foods analyzed in the study included burgers, mince, sausages, coated poultry, bacon plain poultry, meatballs and meat with pastry.

The protein profiles were similar across plant-based meat alternatives and actual meat. But of the 132 plant-based meat analogues analyzed, only 12% were found to be fortified with key micronutrients essential for health that are found in meat – including iron, vitamin B12 and zinc. “While we found plant-based meat products were generally healthier than their processed meat equivalents, healthier alternatives would still be lean unprocessed meats and legumes, beans and falafel,” says Shahid.

How to ensure you obtain the required nutrients for a balanced diet

In Australia, consumers are advised to limit their consumption of processed meats due to potential links to increased cancer risk. “But it 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,” explains Dr. Daisy Coyle, accredited practicing dietitian (APD), research fellow at The George Institute and a co-author of the paper.

For those who want to consume plant-based meat alternatives, but also ensure they obtain the essential nutrients required for a balanced diet, Coyle suggests the following: “Make sure you are consuming other animal proteins such as eggs, cheese, milk, yoghurt and/or rich plant-based sources of iron including dark leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, as well as tofu, nuts and seeds, and beans and legumes.”

Most importantly, moderation is key. “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, it is 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,” she concludes.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the George Institute for Global Health. Material has been edited for length and content.

Reference: Melville H, Shahid M, Gaines A, et al. The nutritional profile of plant-based meat analogues available for sale in Australia. Nutrition & Dietetics. 2023;n/a(n/a). doi: 10.1111/1747-0080.12793.