A new study finds that plant-based meat alternatives in Australian supermarkets are generally healthier than meat products but may lack important nutrients found in real meat.
An analysis of 790 meat and plant products found at major Australian retailers found that plant-based alternatives had a “healthier nutritional profile” overall, but that some were higher in sugar.
Of the 132 plant-based products studied, only 12.1% were fortified with iron, vitamin B12 and zinc – important micronutrients found in meat.
The researchers analyzed the nutritional value of meat products such as burgers, hot dogs, ground beef, bacon and poultry. They compared it to plant-based equivalents, evaluating factors including a health star rating, saturated fat, sodium and how well the food was processed.
Vegan alternatives contain similar amounts of protein as meat products, said Maria Shaheed, data analyst at the George Institute for Global Health and co-lead author of the study.
Plant-based meat alternatives are typically made from plant proteins such as wheat, soy and pea proteins.
But vitamin B12, iron and zinc we usually get from meat. We can also get them from traditional sources of plant-based proteins…things like tofu, falafel, beans and legumes, Shahid said.
“If you’re someone who completely replaces meat products with plant-based alternatives, doesn’t eat a well-balanced diet where you eat lots of other fruits and vegetables, and maybe doesn’t take supplements, you’re likely at risk for micronutrient deficiencies.”
The analysis also found that plant-based products generally had a higher total sugar content, but Shahid noted that the absolute amounts were not that high, at around 1g sugar per 100g.
The research found that most plant-based products were ultra-processed, but on average they had less saturated fat and sodium, as well as more fiber than meat products.
Dr. Jessica Danaher, a nutrition scientist at RMIT University who was not involved in the study, said the research only mentioned the presence and extent of fortification in plant products.
That is, it did not look at micronutrients that are naturally present in food products – information that manufacturers are not legally required to include on food packaging.
“Mandatory immunization occurs in Australia in response to a significant public health need and involves requiring food manufacturers to add specific vitamins or minerals to a specific food or foods,” Danaher said.
For example, manufacturers must add vitamin D to edible oils such as margarine, and thiamin and folic acid to wheat flour used to make bread.
“It is likely that plant-based meat analogues made using beans, legumes, tofu, and vegetable-based ingredients already naturally contain important micronutrients — including iron and zinc — albeit in lower amounts compared to meat of animal origin.”
Danaher added that vitamin B12 can also be found in fortified breakfast cereals, fortified nutritional yeasts, and fortified soy or almond milk.
Thomas King, CEO of the think tank food Frontier said the number of plant-based meat products available to consumers has doubled since the study data was collected in 2021.
“Meat reducers, or ‘flexors,’ are the primary consumer group buying plant-based meat alternatives,” King said. “These are people who want to reduce their meat consumption or diversify their protein diet, and so are also likely to get key micronutrients from other sources — animal and/or plant.”
The study has been published in the journal Nutrition and diet.