Is vegan ‘meat’ healthy?
With so many meat substitutes now available, which is the best choice? Our expert looks into the nutritional, environmental, ethical and cost implications
Worries about the negative effects of eating animal foods on our health, combined with welfare issues and the impact on the environment has meant more of us are seeking out plant-based products. Although these ‘meat’ alternatives increasingly taste and look like the real thing, are they any healthier? And, with so many different options now on sale, which is the best choice?
How popular are vegan meat substitutes?
You can’t fail to notice the array of plant-based ‘meat’ alternatives now available. With more of us following a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet, the demand for these products has boomed. Even back in 2019, the once-flavourless soy sausage caused a sales frenzy when a high-street baker in the UK launched a vegan version of their popular sausage roll.
UK sales of meat-free foods increased 40% over the period 2014-19, and it’s not just a UK phenomenon: the demand, supply and consumption of plant-based meat alternatives has seen a similar increase worldwide.
That said, competition for mass-market success and a more ‘realistic’ meat-like products has also increased the degree of processing and flavour engineering involved. Combined with the nutritional differences with the real thing, are meat substitutes really a healthy choice?
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What is vegan 'meat'?
Designed to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of conventional meat such as beef, pork and chicken, these plant-sourced products are often used in dishes and products that would traditionally include meat. As such they increase the culinary scope of those following a vegan diet and expand the choice of the growing number of people who describe their diet as ‘flexitarian’.
A host of different ingredients (usually protein-based) are now used to make these products. Purified protein from soy, wheat and other cereals; peas, legumes, mushrooms (mycoprotein) and even micro-algae can be engineered to mimic the appearance and sensory experience you’d get from eating meat.
Is vegan ‘meat’ good for you?
It’s well documented that eating more plant foods and limiting red and processed meat may benefit our health. Numerous studies and high-profile reports support this and suggest that those who follow a mainly plant-based diet enjoy a lower risk of chronic diseases including type II diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
However, it’s worth remembering that the plant-based diets evaluated by these studies were rich in whole foods including fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and legumes – and not the popularised, packaged meat alternatives we are increasingly familiar with.
In their natural form, plant foods are rich in fibre, starchy carbs and certain micronutrients. However, they are also likely to be deficient in one or more of the amino acids that make up proteins, with the protein that they do provide often being less digestible. Plant foods also tend to lack minerals like iodine as well as vitamins including B12 and D. Food producers are increasingly fortifying their meat-replacement products in order to avoid possible deficits in nutrients like calcium, iron, zinc and vitamins B12 and D and as an incentive to health-conscious consumers. At the same time, innovations in food processing have led to plant-based products that supply a more comparable protein content to that of meat.
In this ever-changing landscape, there have been limited comparisons between the nutritional difference in animal and whole plant-foods, or conventional and alternative meat products, especially in the form we tend to consume them. From a macronutrient perspective, plant-derived burgers and sausages are likely to provide fewer calories than their animal counterparts and be richer in carbs and sugars. However, the engineering required to produce them means they are also likely to contain more additives including flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, fillers and stabilisers as well as preservatives, salt and oil. Studies on the longer-term health effects of consuming meat alternatives, processed in this way, is currently lacking.
Is vegan ‘meat’ processed?
Almost all meat substitute products are processed, generally to mimic the texture, flavour and appearance to conventional meat, or to achieve a similar protein contribution. For example, many plant-based burgers, sausages and minced ‘meats’ are designed to mimic the colour change from a ‘raw’ red-pink to brown during cooking. This is achieved through the use of colourants, like beetroot powder, and reducing sugars (such as dextrose, xylose or arabinose) which react when heated, changing from red to brown.
Other additives may be used to create that familiar meat-like bite and juicy texture (such as methylcellulose), or to improve the slicing ability and texture when served cold (such as carrageenan). Flavour enhancers (like monosodium glutamate), emulsifiers (like soy lecithin) and stabilisers and fillers are also often used to adjust the taste and texture of plant protein into something more resembling animal protein. These chemicals have varied effects on the body.
From a nutritional perspective, these additives, fortification and manipulation mean a high proportion of these products fall into the classification of an ultra-processed food, which are typically associated with poor health outcomes.
Is vegan ‘meat’ better for the environment?
Discussions over reducing the consumption of animal-based foods to minimise climate change has increased over recent years, and with good reason. Whether you take the view that livestock production is a significant contributor and needs to be minimised, or that we need to take account of the nutrient density of foods when we make judgements on environmental impact, one thing is certain: we all need to be doing something. For many of us this includes following a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet.
If this is relevant to you, then you need to be aware that creating a plant-based burger or sausage is a resource-intensive process. Purifying proteins requires the use of acids and large amounts of water and energy in return for a relatively low yield, and centralised production results in increased food miles to reach the consumer. In terms of carbon footprint, many of these meat alternatives are actually comparable to poultry products, and their environmental and sustainability credentials aren’t equivalent to a whole-food, non-meat diet.
Is vegan ‘meat’ cheaper?
When it comes to your pocket, plant-based meat alternatives aren’t necessarily any cheaper. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Concentrating vegetable protein to a comparable level to meat is an expensive process
- Although demand is high, production is still at a relatively small-scale
- Innovation and development costs are high
As a result, products can be as expensive as beef, and possibly up to four times the cost of chicken.
Tips for choosing a vegan ‘meat’ alternative
With so many plant-based alternatives lining our supermarket shelves, how can you make the best choice? Here are some factors to consider:
- If there are front-of-pack ‘traffic light’ labels, see if the product has high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Comparing these is a useful way to assess similar products.
- Check the nutrition panel on the back of pack for more detail on the nutritional values of the product – for example, does the product offer a useful source of protein and fibre?
- Check the ingredient list – if there are five or more ingredients, and you don’t recognise their names, it’s likely the product is ultra-processed
- What are the main ingredients? Are they whole foods like grains, beans and pulses, soya, nuts and seeds? Or does the product contain a number of additives like thickeners, emulsifiers and preservatives?
- Is the product fortified with some of the harder-to-get nutrients like vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iron and iodine?
- Does the product meet your needs? For instance, if the purpose of buying the meat alternative is to provide a source of protein, does it contribute an adequate amount?
- Where was the product made, and are you confident in its sustainability promises?
What can I use instead of a processed vegan ‘meat’?
The good news is there are plenty of other ingredients – but don’t forget, although these may work well in your recipe, they may not provide a like-for-like nutritional comparison. One example is jackfruit, a tropical fruit with a mild flavour and a fibrous, stringy texture that makes it work perfectly as a meat substitute in recipes like pulled pork. However, it has a low protein and fat content and contributes comparatively fewer vitamins and minerals than the meat it’s replacing. Seitan is another versatile option, made from wheat gluten. It is not a full nutritional substitute for meat, but works well when combined with beans and pulses.
Other options include tempeh and tofu: although less meat-like, they are a complete source of protein, which means they provide all nine of the essential amino acids we need. What’s more, the digestibility of soy protein – which refers to how well our body can use the protein – is good, with some studies even suggesting it may be comparable to meat.
Overall, is vegan ‘meat’ a healthy choice?
Although meat-free burgers and sausages may tick the box if you are cutting out meat for ethical reasons, they may not always be the best option for your health. How nutritious they are will depend on the ingredients used and the level of processing involved in their production.
Be alert to the ‘health halo’ effect, where factors associated with traditional vegetarian diets are potentially being conflated, along-with sustainability and environmental reasons, to convince you to buy these new meat substitutes.
If these products are a regular feature in your shopping basket, be sure to read nutrition labels carefully, consider moderating your intake and cook from scratch more often using whole, plant-based ingredients like lentils, beans, tofu and tempeh.
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Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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