Aussies trying to eat healthier have been left with a burning question in recent times — is plant-based ‘meat’ a healthy swap for conventional meat? Fortunately, a new report aims to answer the widely-searched query.
Plant-based meat options are now easily accessible at major supermarkets across Australia with the help of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. In fact, restaurants have also been trying to appease this entirely new demographic with its own alternate options.
For instance, Hungry Jack’s released the Rebel Whopper last year; Domino’s has its own pizza range with plant-based meat toppings; and Mad Mex is catering to the people with its Poco Diablo spicy vegan chicken burritos.
It’s the perfect mesh of options for those looking to follow a flexitarian diet, which encourages the consumption of plant-based foods and allows meat and other animal products to be eaten in moderation.
But despite an increase in the availability of plant-based alternatives, Aussies are still consuming more meat than they should. According to Teri Lichtenstein, an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, one-third of Aussie adults’ average daily meat consumption is non-lean and processed meats, the very foods health experts tell us to limit in our diets.
Based on this need to moderate conventional meat consumption, a report by Food Frontier, co-authored by Lichtenstein, aims to educate Aussies on the advantages of including plant-based meat options into their diet and what they need to be mindful of if they do follow the advice.
“Plant-based meats across a variety of categories are nutritionally superior or comparable, on average, to similar conventional meats, and don’t pose the same food safety risks and links to diseases like colorectal cancer.”
“The key takeaway of the study I authored with Food Frontier is that plant-based meats across a variety of categories are nutritionally superior or comparable, on average, to similar conventional meats, and don’t pose the same food safety risks and links to diseases like colorectal cancer,” Lichtenstein explained to Lifehacker Australia.
“Therefore, plant-based meats can serve as a healthier alternative for those seeking to reduce their meat consumption.”
What did the report find?
The report comes a year after it was found that Australians were consuming double the amount of red meat advised under government dietary guidelines.
It analysed 95 plant-based meat products across Australia and New Zealand and compared them to their conventional meat equivalents like sausages, burgers and chicken-style pieces.
The following factors were taken into account to make the assessment that plant-based meats were in fact “nutritionally superior or comparable to similar conventional meat products”:
- Dietary energy
- Dietary fibre
- Health Star Ratings
“Plant-based meats across most categories have, on average, lower or comparable kilojoules and sodium, higher or comparable protein and lower fat and saturated fat per 100g, along with the presence of health-promoting fibre, in comparison to their conventional meat equivalents,” the report stated.
“These comparisons are most significant for saturated fat; for example, conventional meats had anywhere from double to five times the amount of saturated fat than plant-based meat equivalents on average.”
It’s second key finding highlighted that plant-based meat products did not pose the same individual and public health risks as real meat did.
“Plant-based meats do not present the same foodborne illness risks; links to the rise of zoonotic disease and antimicrobial resistance; and factors believed to contribute to colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes — diseases that are among the leading causes of death in Australia,” the report explained.
It also found that plant-based meats offered some of the benefits associated with plant-based eating.
“Most plant-based meats provide certain benefits associated with eating more whole plant foods, such as dietary fibre and considerably lower saturated fat on average than their conventional meat equivalents. They can also serve as a transition food towards a more plant-centric diet given their design as a centre-of-plate protein alternative.”
How often should you eat plant-based meats and why?
It’s no secret that eating healthy means consuming more whole foods such as vegetables, nuts, wholegrains. But that’s not always easy if conventional meat’s been at the forefront of your diet for years.
“What plant-based meats offer is an alternative protein for the centre of our meals for people who want something that is both tasty and in the same format as the foods they know and love, yet that can be a healthier choice with benefits like dietary fibre and considerably lower saturated fat than similar conventional meats,” Lichtenstein explained.
“Depending on what plant-based meat products you choose and what their health star rating and nutritional value is, I would probably say limit your intake to once or twice a week.”
However, Nicole Dynan, director of Sydney clinic The Good Nutrition Co, stressed that while the fact that these meats are plant-based gives them a bit of a ‘halo’ effect, they are still ultra processed and should not be consumed daily.
“Depending on what products you choose and what their health star rating and nutritional value is, I would probably say limit your intake to once or twice a week,” Dynan told Lifehacker Australia.
What are some things people need to be careful of when choosing plant-based meats?
The fact that Dynan is advising Aussies to limit their intake to once or twice a week might be a bit surprising, but in addition to their processed nature, these products can also have very high levels of sodium.
“If you go to the store it’s good to compare sodium numbers for different products,” said Dynan. “Ideally you should consume 120 milligrams or less to 100 grams of the product. So it’s about reading labels and figuring out which product is best to pick up.”
Fortunately, plant-based meat producers are getting better at falling into line with what consumers want and making sure their labels are as clear as possible. However, Dynan recommended “looking for products with less ingredients” to better understand what you’re consuming.
Lichtenstein too echoed Dynan’s sentiments about choosing the right plant-based meat products to fit dietary requirements and emphasised reading the label for ‘dietary fibre’ as well as sodium.
“Two key nutrients to consider are sodium and dietary fibre: people should look for the product with the least amount of sodium that still suits their tastes, and the highest amount of dietary fibre.”
“On average across most categories, plant-based meats are a healthier swap for conventional sausages, burgers, bacon and so on. However when choosing an individual plant-based meat product, it’s important to look out for a Health Star Rating of 3.5 or greater, which is often displayed on the food label, and every category of plant-based meat we reviewed [in the report] had an average HSR of 3.5 or greater,” Lichtenstein explained.
“Two key nutrients to consider are sodium and dietary fibre: people should look for the product with the least amount of sodium that still suits their tastes, and the highest amount of dietary fibre. Our study found that of the products that label fibre, 65% can be classified as a ‘good source’.”