Plant-based meat sold in Australian supermarkets healthier than real meat but may lack key nutrients | Food

Plant-based meat alternatives in Australian supermarkets are generally healthier than meat products but may lack important nutrients found in real meat, new research suggests.

An analysis of 790 meat and plant-based products found in major Australian retailers has found that plant-based alternatives had a “healthier nutritional profile” overall, but some were higher in sugar.

Of 132 plant-based products studied, only 12.1% were fortified with iron, vitamin B12 and zinc – important micronutrients that are found in meat.

The researchers analysed the nutritional value of meat products such as burgers, sausages, mince, bacon and poultry. They compared them against plant-based equivalents, assessing factors including health star rating, saturated fat, sodium and the extent to which the food had been processed.

Maria Shahid, a data analyst at the George Institute for Global Health and the study’s co-lead author, said plant-based alternatives contained similar amounts of protein as meat products.

Plant-based meat alternatives are commonly made from vegetable proteins such as wheat, soy and pea proteins.

“But vitamin B12, iron and zinc we typically get from meats. We also can get them from traditional sources of plant protein … things like tofu, falafels, beans and legumes,” Shahid said.

“If you are somebody who is entirely substituting out meat products for plant-based alternatives, and you’re not eating a well-balanced diet where you’re eating a lot of other fruits and veg, and perhaps you’re not taking supplementation, then potentially you’re at risk of micronutrient deficiencies.”

The analysis also found that plant-based products generally had a greater total sugar content, but Shahid noted that the absolute amounts were not high, at around 1g sugar per 100g.

Most plant-based products were ultra-processed, but on average had less saturated fat and sodium, as well as more fibre than meat products, the research found.

Dr Jessica Danaher, a nutrition scientist at RMIT University who was not involved in the study, said the research only reported the presence and extent of fortification in plant-based products.

That is, it did not look at the micronutrients that exist naturally in food products – information that manufacturers are not legally required to include on food packaging.

“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,” Danaher said.

“For example, manufacturers must add vitamin D to edible oil spreads like margarine, and thiamin and folic acid to wheat flour used for making bread.

“Plant-based meat analogues made using beans, legumes, tofu and vegetable-based ingredients would likely already naturally contain important micronutrients – including iron and zinc – albeit in smaller quantities compared to animal-origin meats.”

Vitamin B12 can also be found in fortified breakfast cereals, fortified nutritional yeasts and fortified soy or almond milk, Danaher added.

Thomas King, the chief executive of thinktank Food Frontier, said the number of plant-based meat products available to consumers had doubled since the study data was collected, in 2021.

“Meat reducers, or ‘flexitarians’, are the primary consumer group buying plant-based meat alternatives,” King said. “These are people who wish to reduce their meat consumption or diversify their dietary protein, and are therefore likely to also be obtaining key micronutrients from other – animal and/or plant – sources.”

The study was published in the journal Nutrition & Dietetics.

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