Plant-based meats have a healthier nutrient profile than meat equivalents but still show a high salt content, says new study

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AUTHOR: Fiona Holland

Most plant-based meat products are healthier than meat equivalents, but they still contain too much salt, a new study published by Queen Mary University yesterday reveals.

The research revealed that energy density, total fat, and saturated fats were much lower in most of the plant-based meat alternatives in comparison to meat products.

Only 4% of the analysed plant-based meats were noted to be high in saturated fats in comparison to 41.7% of meat products.

Fibre content was also significantly higher in plant-based meats, and while protein was visibly lower, plant-based and meat-based breaded chicken and mince showed a similar amount of protein.

The salt content however was a lot higher in five out of the six-plant based categories especially in plant-based chicken, which had more than double the amount of salt than regular chicken.

Approximately 15% of the plant-based meat products were high in salt, compared to 13.7% of meat products.

The nutrient profiles of these products were analysed using the UK Nutrient Profiling model which utilises a points-based scoring system allocated according to the nutrient content in 100g of food.

20% of the analysed plant-based meat alternatives and 46% of meat products fit into at least one high-level criteria for total fat, saturated fat or salt content.

The plant-based meats were categorised into several categories to be analysed in comparison to their meat versions:

  • Sausages
  • Burgers
  • Chicken alternatives
  • Breaded chicken alternatives
  • Mince
  • Meatballs

The plant-based products were analysed in a cross-sectional survey in January 2020. While the data for meat products was collected in May 2020, proper analysis of the information from a wide range of retailers was delayed due to the pandemic. Nutritional information was instead taken from meat categories available online at Tesco, which has the largest market share in the country.

The product data for plant-based products was collected from Aldi, ASDA, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, The Co-op and Waitrose, which hold the highest share in the UK grocery market. They also collected product information from supermarkets selling a high number of plant-based meat products: Marks & Spencer, Boots, Holland & Barrett, Whole Foods and Planet Organic.

This is one of very few existing studies that focuses on the nutritional qualities of plant-based meats according to the researchers, which include dietitian, nutritionist and doctoral researcher in Public Health Nutrition at Queen Mary University Roberta Alessandrini.

While efforts need to be made to address the high salt levels in plant-based meats, the study does acknowledge that plant-based meat alternatives are overall healthier than their meat equivalents. Only 13.7% of the plant-based products analysed scored as “less healthy” in comparison to 40% of the meat products.

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