Although the nutritional merits of plant-based food have faced mounting scrutiny by consumers in recent months — due in part to ties with the ultra-processed category — discrepancies by variety suggest that not all alternative products are created equal.
A 2019 analysis of more than 130 products in Australian grocery stores found that plant-based products were lower in calories and saturated fat than meat products on average. Plant-based alternatives were also usually higher in carbohydrates and fiber than traditional meat, according to the report published in Medical Xpress.
However, the nutritional content of one plant-based product can differ greatly from the next.
“It isn’t dissimilar to the nutrition content in real meat, which depends on the quality of the ingredients and sourcing,” Patrick Baskin, U.S. market lead at unMeat told The Food Institute.
For example, the supermarket audit found that some plant-based products actually contained more saturated fat than a beef patty. Salt levels also varied. Plant-based mince can contain up to six times more sodium than meat equivalent products, while plant-based sausages contain two thirds less sodium on average.
The Ultra-Processed Equation
According to the report, most plant-based meats are classified as ultra-processed foods, meaning they include substances that you wouldn’t find in the average household’s kitchen.
While many health-conscious consumers view this as an automatic red flag, Nathan Pratt, Nutrition Scientist PhD, RD at Kerry believes that staying mindful of the nutritional content of different plant-based products is a top priority.
“Nutrition is ultimately more important than whether something is ultra-processed when thinking about healthy diets,” Pratt told The Food Institute.
Furthermore, research shows that a plant-based diet can still have significant health benefits. An eight-week trial of 36 U.S. adults found that altering a diet to include more plant-based products, while keeping all other foods and beverages as similar as possible, improved several risk factors for heart disease, including cholesterol and body weight.
The culmination of all of this data signals an opportunity for plant-based producers to get ahead by creating products that appeal to health-conscious consumers without sacrificing taste.
“Health is the second purchase driver, behind taste, in the plant-based category and the brands that will win out will be those that are cleaner and healthy,” said Baskin, adding that on the production side, “The technology already exists. We just need more producers to take advantage of that tech and educate consumers on why plant-based [meat] is, and should be, healthier than real meat.”
While reading labels is the first line of defense for shoppers who seek healthy plant-based products, navigating nutrition can be challenging. As Pratt notes it’s sometimes difficult to make sense of all the information on a nutrition label, and those labels only show a portion of a food’s nutrition.
“I would recommend choosing products that are equivalent in protein to foods that are being replaced as well as ones lower in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar when comparing multiple foods,” said Pratt. “A bonus would be choosing products that have fiber, whole grains, or vegetables — not just vegetable protein, but whole vegetables — to add some extra nutrition from the plant.”