Meat substitutes often healthier than comparable meat
PRESS RELEASE – 06.09.2023
Meat substitutes are often a healthier choice than the meat products they replace. ProVeg Netherlands analysed the nutritional composition of meat substitutes from Dutch supermarkets and compared them to animal meat. On average, the plant-based products contained less saturated fat, fewer calories and significantly more dietary fibre. In addition, they have a similar percentage of calories from protein. This
indicates that, in terms of the risk for lifestyle diseases, meat substitutes often have a slightly better composition than animal meat, especially red and processed meat.
– Plant-based burgers, mince meat, meatballs, sausage and bacon get a better average score than animal meat when tested against the criteria of the Netherlands Nutrition Center. Shawarma and nuggets show similar scores for both plant-based and animal products. Animal meat only scores better in the categories chicken chunks, chicken fillet and schnitzel.
– Of the meat substitutes examined, 85% met the protein criterion for meat substitutes, while 88% of the animal reference products met this standard.
– On average, all categories of meat substitutes contain sufficient iron and vitamin B12, even when non-fortified products are included in the calculation.
– 33% of the meat substitutes examined met all the criteria of the Nutrition Center for meat substitutes associated with the risk of lifestyle diseases (salt, sugar and saturated fat). For the animal reference products, this percentage was 17%.
The report compared 130 vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes with 41 animal reference products based on the criteria of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre.
There has been increasing criticism of the health of meat substitutes, for instance because some are high in salt. Previous studies have shown that only a small proportion of Dutch meat substitutes meet all the national criteria. ProVeg’s analysis complements these studies and puts them in a broader context by also making the comparison with meat.
Martine Van Haperen, nutrition and health expert at ProVeg: “With this study, we want to make a fair comparison by not only testing meat substitutes against the national criteria, but also contrasting them with the products they replace. When making food choices, consumers are not only concerned with health and nutrition, but also taste. They like to eat their favourite traditional dishes, like sausage stew or eggs and bacon. Salty and fatty flavours are essential to the experience of eating these products. It is obvious that meat substitute manufacturers will not be able to make a plant-based product with the same salty, fatty taste that simultaneously meets all the national health criteria. That is why our report compares the plant-based substitutes with similar animal meat products. It turns out that meat substitutes often have a slightly better nutritional composition. So as a consumer you generally do not lose out in terms of health by choosing a meat substitute instead of a processed animal meat product.”
Big differences between meat substitutes
The research shows that there are major differences in health between different types of meat substitutes, just like there are between different types of meat products. This means that it is necessary to check individual products to find out which meat substitutes are the healthiest. Most healthy meat substitutes can be found in the categories that replace unprocessed animal meat, such as vegan chicken and mince meat. In categories where the animal meat is very salty and contains a lot of saturated fat, such as (smoked) sausage, burgers and bacon, the meat substitutes are also usually not healthy according to the
national criteria, although they often have a better composition than the animal meat products.
As with animal meat, too high a salt content is the main reason why many meat substitutes do not meet all the national criteria. Meat substitutes are on average less salty than processed meat, but saltier than unprocessed meat.
It is sometimes said of meat substitutes that they cannot sufficiently replace the nutritional value of animal meat. Of the plant-based products included in the analysis, 85% met the protein criterion for meat substitutes of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre, versus 88% of the animal reference products. Also, 55% of the substitutes were fortified with iron and vitamin B12. The fortified products usually contained considerably more added iron and vitamin B12 than the national criteria. As a result, the meat substitutes on average contained enough of both nutrients, even if the non-fortified meat substitutes were included in the calculation.
Van Haperen: “So if a consumer alternates between fortified and non-fortified meat substitutes, their average intake of iron and vitamin B12 meets the criteria for meat substitutes. Nevertheless, it would of course be better if even more meat substitutes were fortified with iron and vitamin B12, so the useful nutritional value corresponds more closely with that of meat.”
Due to the increasing attention to the health risks of ultra-processed food, the question is sometimes raised whether meat substitutes made from processed plant proteins are a healthy alternative to animal meat. Van Haperen: “According to the current definition, meat substitutes are considered to be ultra-processed, but it doesn’t make sense to lump them together with products such as sweets or crisps. Just like with animal meat, there are healthy and less healthy products. The degree of processing is not in itself sufficient indication whether or not meat substitutes are healthy.”
Meat substitutes make meat reduction easier
The share of animal proteins in the diet of the average Dutch person has fallen in recent years from 61% to 58%. The government has set the goal that 50% of the consumed proteins should be plant-based by 2030. If the current trend continues, that percentage will not be reached. Van Haperen: “This much-needed change in our diet is very difficult to achieve, even among consumers who are aware of the benefits of eating more plant-based foods. Meat substitutes such as plant-based minced meat, chicken chunks and burgers make it easier for consumers to reduce their meat consumption.”
Meat substitutes are becoming increasingly affordable. According to previous research by ProVeg Netherlands, some variants are now even cheaper than the cheapest animal meat. Van Haperen: “As the consumption of meat substitutes increases, it is very important that they have a good nutritional value and are preferably healthier than animal meat.”
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About the report
This study compared the nutritional value of 130 meat substitutes available in Dutch supermarkets with 41 animal reference products. For the meat substitutes, use was made of nutrition information as shown on the packaging, for the reference products nutritional values were taken from the Dutch Nutrient Database (NEVO). The product categories studied are minced meat, burgers, meatballs, chicken pieces,
chicken fillet, schnitzel, nuggets, sausage, bacon and shawarma. Vegetable burgers, tofu, tempeh and seitan were omitted because there is no direct animal equivalent to which they can be compared. The study included all private label and name brand meat substitutes that fall into the aforementioned product categories and are available at Albert Heijn, Jumbo, Lidl, Aldi, Plus and Ekoplaza supermarkets.
ProVeg has consulted the Netherlands Nutrition Center and the Dutch Consumers’ Association in developing the methodology. The Netherlands Nutrition Center has also provided feedback on the draft report.
ProVeg is a non-profit organisation focused on transforming the global food system by replacing animal products with plant-based and cell-grown alternatives.
ProVeg works with food producers, investors, governments, the media and the general public to help the world transition to a society and economy that are less dependent on livestock farming and more sustainable for people, animals and our planet.