Whether it’s not-dogs or beetroot burgers, plant-based meats are one of the biggest food trends of 2020. From supermarket shelves to fine dining restaurants, new protein choices mimic the look, feel, flavour and texture of meat. But are these alternative meats healthier, and can they play a part in your fitness goals?
Sales of plant-based meats are booming, with a recent report finding a 289 per cent increase in meat-free burger products on supermarket shelves since 2010. Faux meat is big business – the CSIRO predicts the Australian alternative protein industry will top $6 billion by 2030.
Meanwhile, the traditional meat industry is bleeding, with an independent study quoted by Meat and Livestock Australia predicting a $3.8 billion loss over the same period, chiefly attributed to animal welfare concerns.
Between animal welfare activism and concerns for the environmental impact of traditional meat production, the time is ripe for alt-meats to take centre stage.
An increased appetite for plant-based meat
‘There will be nearly 10 billion people on Earth by 2050 and we will need 70 per cent more food to feed them,” says Professor Michelle Colgrave, Future Protein Lead at CSIRO Agriculture and Food.
‘There is a big shortfall between the amount of protein we produce today and the amount needed to feed the growing global population.
‘Plant-based sources of protein are a complementary source to meet the gap between current production and future demand.’
And Australia is leading the global charge towards plant-based, as the third fastest growing vegan market in the world, according to a recent Euromonitor report.
‘We are witnessing changing dietary patterns with up to one third of Australians actively seeking to reduce their meat intake, so there is a demand for alternative protein sources such as products made from plants,’ Colgrave notes.
‘In the plant-based protein space over the last 12 months alone, we have seen a five-fold increase in interest in product development. Globally, the field is in double-digit growth.
‘And COVID-19 has not impacted this as one might expect. In fact, disruption to some meat processing facilities has increased demand for plant-based products or seen consumers try these products when traditional products are not available.’
Are plant-based meats healthier?
‘Plant-based meat is generally not a healthier alternative to traditional meat,’ says Jessica Rothwell, Accredited Sports Dietitian, Sports Dietitians Australia.
‘The processing or ingredients combined to create faux meat may include high amounts of coconut oil or salt, often lack high biological value protein and, unless fortified, are unlikely to contain key micronutrients that support immune function and energy production, including vitamin B12, iron and zinc.’
A recent study published in the journal Nutrients concurs. Reviewing 137 plant-based meat products, less than a quarter were fortified with vitamin B12, iron and zinc. While the study found the plant-based products were generally lower in calories and fat, they were higher in carbohydrate (not always good news for your macro splits) and sugars than meat.
On the flipside, the plant-based meats were generally higher in fibre than traditional meat sources.
Of note in the study, only four per cent of the alt-meats studied were low in sodium. Recent research from The Heart Foundation found a serve of faux meat often contains 20 to 35 per cent of your maximum recommended daily salt intake, (and with some products, up to half your total RDI).
While sodium can be extremely beneficial for athletes following an intense training session – helping with cognitive function, nutrient absorption, muscle contraction and more – excess sodium intake leads to increased blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease. So, for the ‘average’ person, it’s important to monitor your intake.
In short, it’s a work in progress for pioneers in the plant-based meat industry. ‘There are a few areas of improvement that we will see in coming years,’ says Colgrave. ‘For instance, decreasing the salt content of these products.’
How plant-based meats can be healthier (sometimes)
But before you begin demonising all plant-based meat products, it’s worth comparing apples with apples (or burgers with burgers). Yes, an unprocessed cut of traditional meat is often healthier than highly-processed plant-based products. But if you compare two equally processed foodstuffs – such as a meat burger patty versus a plant-based burger patty – plant-based tends to come out on top.
Teri Lichtenstein, Accredited Practising Dietitian and co-author of a recent report which reviewed 95 plant-based meat alternative products in Australian supermarkets, explains:
‘Our study showed that plant-based meats across most categories – like beefless burgers and meat-free mince – are nutritionally comparable or superior when compared to similarly processed conventional meats,’ she says.
‘On average, plant-based meats have lower or comparable kilojoules and sodium; higher or comparable protein; lower fat and significantly lower saturated fat. And 65 per cent of plant-based meats are a good source of fibre.’
What’s really in plant-based meat?
‘Plant-based meats vary in ingredients, however they typically contain an isolated source of plant-based protein, or a combination of soy, pea, wheat or even mycoprotein,’ says Rothwell.
Depending on the product, water and vegetable oils as well as salt or iron, zinc and vitamin B12 may be added.
In the end, like all food choices, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons, and checking the nutrition label. For example, while most plant-based meats are lower in protein than traditional meats, they ‘…often contain added fibre and nutrients,’ says Colgrave.
And while plant-based meats sometimes contain more fat than lean cuts of the traditional stuff, it’s often the type of fat that matters.
‘In the case of saturated fat, which we know should be limited in the diet – conventional meat equivalents had anywhere from double to five times the amount than plant-based meats on average,’ says Lichtenstein.
‘Keeping these comparisons in mind, plant-based meats are designed as an alternative to help consumers in their meat reduction journey, which can be in conjunction with lean meat in their diet.’
Learning to read food labels
Don’t believe the hype – just because something is branded ‘plant-based’ or ‘organic’ doesn’t automatically make it healthier. Highly processed foods, high sodium content, excess saturated fat and low nutritional value are just some of the plant-based pitfalls to look out for.
How to choose wisely? Check the packaging for:
1. A short ingredients list: Aim for ‘minimal ingredients and a high percentage of vegetables or soy protein,’ says Rothwell. Ingredients on food labels are ordered from highest to lowest by weight – look closely to see what you’re really eating.
2. Added nutrients: ‘Food fortification including vitamin B12, iron or zinc’ will support micronutrient intake, suggests Rothwell.
3. Less salt: ‘Aim for less than 400mg salt per 100g,’ recommends Rothwell, noting that this is challenging given some of the current products on supermarket shelves. ‘If you can find a product with less than 500mg salt per 100g, you’re doing well!’
4. Minimal fat: Particularly saturated fat, but lower levels of fat may also help you hit your daily calorie and macro goals. Aim for less than 10g of total fat per 100g serve.
Are you thinking of going vegan or vegetarian?
There’s more to going plant-based than just replacing your usual steak or chicken with a plant-based burger. Follow these tips for a healthier plant-based diet:
1. Variety is key: ‘It’s important to plan and enjoy a wide variety and adequate quantity of nutritious plant-based foods,’ says Rothwell. ‘These include all vegetables, soy-based products such as tofu, tempeh, edamame beans and milk/yoghurt; legumes (beans and lentils) including pasta products; whole grain cereals (oats, barley, spelt, amaranth), quinoa, nuts and seeds.’
2. Eat whole foods: Trading a beef sausage for a soy-based snag is not the same as filling your diet with whole, unprocessed foods.
3. Expert advice: ‘An Accredited Sports Dietitian can support you in achieving great health and your performance or fitness related goals,’ says Rothwell. That includes how to go plant-based without compromising your health, and the safe use of supplements.
How to go plant-based without sacrificing training performance
‘Meat alternatives can be incorporated as part of a healthy balanced diet,’ says Rothwell.
‘However, it is important for all consumers to understand that meat alternatives are not necessarily ‘game changers’ to better health.
‘Nor is there evidence to suggest plant-based meats or vegan diets are superior for sporting performance, when compared to consuming lean sources of meat and/or fish, as part of a healthy diet.’
Colgrave agrees: ‘It is always about balance, ensuring that consumption matches the advice from health professionals, such as the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and of course checking the mandatory ingredient labelling for those who suffer from food allergy or intolerance,’ she says.
Plan your plant-based fuel to support your fitness goals: ‘Nutritional requirements and recommendations will vary according to gender, age and modality of exercise undertaken,’ notes Rothwell.
‘Adequate energy including the quality and distribution of protein intake, iron, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids are some of the main nutritional considerations that will require careful consideration and planning.’
STRONG Australia’s pick? Take a look at Fable. Their plant-based meals are delicious, while their nutritional label also manages to tick all of our expert’s requirements.