Although plant-based foods are a staple for many, some consumers question whether plant-based meat products adhere to nutritional guidelines, can rival traditional meat options, and contribute to a healthy diet.
A new study by ProVeg shows that plant-based meat alternatives are often a healthier choice than the animal-based meat products they replace. This information has the potential to be groundbreaking in persuading health-conscious consumers to opt for plant-based meats instead of those derived from animals.
The study, led by ProVeg Netherlands, compared the nutritional value of 130 meat substitutes available in Dutch supermarkets with 41 animal-based reference products. For the meat substitutes, the researchers used the nutritional information as shown on the packaging. For the animal-based reference products, ProVeg took the nutritional values from the Dutch Nutrient Database (NEVO).
In its recent New Food Hub article, ProVeg International delved into the key findings from the study. The article uncovers what the results mean for businesses and how to use the information in product strategy (and beyond).
Let’s take a look at the top three insights.
1. Plant-based meat substitutes are often healthier than animal-based meat products
On average, the plant-based products, subject to the study, contained less saturated fat, fewer calories and significantly more dietary fibre. In addition, they had a similar percentage of calories from protein.
This indicates that, in terms of the risk of lifestyle diseases, meat substitutes often have a slightly better composition than animal meat, especially red and processed meat. When enriched, the plant-based products also had higher iron and vitamin B12 content.
2. Nutritionally, there is high brand and product variability between plant-based products
An important finding of the study is that there are significant variations in the nutritional composition of plant-based meats among different products and brands, just as there are between different types of meat products. Some brands perform well in meeting the criteria of the Nutrition Centre, while others lag. For example, different brands distinguish themselves with predominantly high or low salt content, indicating that certain companies are more actively working to reduce salt than others. This means it’s necessary to check individual products to find out which meat substitutes are the healthiest.
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.
3. Processing does not determine a product’s healthiness
Due to increasing attention to the ‘health risks’ of ultra-processed food, questions are being raised about whether meat substitutes made from processed plant proteins are a healthy alternative to animal meat. Often, due to being processed, plant-based products are grouped under the same nutritional umbrella as junk foods.
However, the lead author of the study, Dr Martine Van Haperen, Nutrition and Health Expert at ProVeg, explains that this should not be the case: “According to the current definition, plant-based meats are considered 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 as to whether or not meat substitutes are healthy.”
Certainly, the study found that the nutritional quality and ‘healthiness’ of the plant-based meat products tested varies widely, just as it does with animal meat.
Additionally, the report shows that plant-based meat substitutes have a much better nutritional value than what is typically associated with ultra-processed products. Inasmuch, the degree of processing alone does not determine whether a product is ‘healthy’ or not.
The results from ProVeg’s study are encouraging, but they also show us that producers of meat substitutes have great work ahead of them. Product improvements are required to ensure that nutritional requirements, like those in the Netherlands, and consumer demands are met.