For almost every meat or dairy based product available there is a vegetarian or vegan alternative which is made without animal ingredients. There’s no denying it, we now have so much choice, but how do plant-based meat alternatives stack up nutritionally?
Plant-Based Diets are on the Rise
More people than ever have adopted a plant-based diet, or else choose to include more plant-based foods in their lifestyle. Many reasons, including sustainability, ethical concerns and health can be rectified by using a trusted Grass-Fed and Ethically Sourced meat supplier but for those still wanting to adopt Vegan products, what do the alternatives actually contribute?
A diet packed with fresh fruit and veg is great, providing a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant compounds. However, meat substitutes in particular are sometimes deceivingly unhealthy and incomparable to these fresh and natural foods.
5 Reasons Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Aren’t Good for You
- Synthetic Ingredients
Let’s face it, meat substitutes don’t grow on trees, in fields or on farms. So, what are they exactly and how are they made?
Recreating the texture and flavour of meat with only plants involves a lot of wizardry from the food industry. Whilst plant-based meat alternatives are made with a base ingredient of natural protein such as soy or mushrooms, they also require the addition of other ingredients which are often synthetic and manmade to make them look and/or taste like meat.
Things such as synthetic emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents, preservatives and bulking agents are added to recreate a ‘meaty texture’ and artificial flavourings are often used to bring flavour which is not naturally there.
- Hidden Sugar and Salt
Research has shown that vegetarian and vegan meat replacements can contain up to 6 times the sodium found naturally in their animal-based equivalents. In fact, one study found that 28% of meat substitute products exceeded the recommended safe levels of salt.
As the main ingredient in most meat substitutes is plant-protein, they are often naturally a little bland or flavourless. This also opens the door to added sugars. Just like in low fat foods, sugar is added to compensate for a lack of flavour. Of course, added sugars bring heaps of empty calories to the table and are also devoid of healthful nutrients.
- Heavily Processed
There is much debate over whether meat substitutes fall under the ‘plant foods’ category or the ‘processed foods category’ – the former associated with positive health outcomes and the latter with negative.
Whilst all vegan meat replacements are made solely with plant ingredients, there’s no denying that they are heavily processed. After all, for a mushroom or pea to end up looking and tasting like meat there must be a lot of processing involved!
The trouble with processed foods is that they’re far from nature. Heavily processing the plant-based ingredients means they are stripped of the beneficial nutrients which make their wholefood equivalents so healthful – such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. Again, processed foods usually carry with them the addition of artificial ingredients and preservatives too.
Not to mention the time, and energy required to create these foods is incredible - a single avocado costs 60 gallons of water to grow and then has to be transported by air-freight to get to it's final destination - far from sustainable. Industrial Soy need large amounts of acid-neutralising lime alongside synthetic fertiliser and herbicides/pesticides - all of these are an environmental hazard and contribute to the destruction of our natural ecosystem.
- Incomplete Source of Protein
Vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives are usually made with just one plant-protein. This is usually mycoprotein (derived from mushrooms e.g. Quorn), pea protein, soy or gluten.
Whilst these are all high in protein, when broken down into essential amino acids none are complete sources of protein. ‘Complete’ proteins are those which contain all 9 essential amino acids in one serving, such as those derived from meat and fish.
It’s perfectly possible to get a complete source of protein from plant-based foods, but 99% of the time this means combining plants. As plants contain a varying mixture of amino acids, the easiest way to get all the essential amino acids is to include 2 sources at each meal. That way you get some amino acids from one food and others from another – which combine to provide a complete source.
As meat substitutes are mostly made using one type of plant-protein, they do not provide a complete source of essential amino acids and so are nutritionally lacking. This is often overlooked by some veggies and vegans, who consider meat substitutes to be all the protein they need.
- Lacking essential nutrients
Meat-free alternatives are usually used to substitute the protein in a dish, but there’s actually a lot more to meat than protein (though it is a great source of complete protein as mentioned above!)
As well as protein, meat is also a great source of highly bioavailable nutrients which can’t be found in plant-based foods. This includes essential amino acids like Taurine as well as B vitamins, haem Iron and Zinc. In particular, meat is the main source of Vitamin B12, which is especially hard to come by in other foods and is vital for human health.
A healthy balanced diet which includes meat, fish and dairy as well as plenty of fruit and veg is the best way to benefit from a whole spectrum of nutrients for optimal health.
What’s the verdict?
A vegetarian or vegan diet has some obvious benefits for the planet, animal welfare and health when comparing against highly commercial, factory farmed meat.
However, meat substitutes present a potentially dangerous problem in a food that is devoid of the beneficial nutrients found in both meat and plant-based foods. They could also contain hidden nasties such as synthetic ingredients and added sugars and salts. Throw in the fact that they’re heavily processed and it seems they aren’t so healthy after all.
In light of this, meat substitutes should be eaten sparingly by those following a plant-based diet (just like all processed food should be). It is recommended that wholefood proteins such as lentils, peas, rice, nuts and seeds are enjoyed more often.
For meat eaters, meat is the obviously healthier choice with minimal processing, a complete source of protein and a powerhouse of healthful vitamins and minerals. You should always choose local, Organic and Grass Fed meat to guarantee a more sustainable meat and high levels of animal welfare.
Overall, good quality and responsibly reared meat is the best choice all-round.