Are plant-based meats really better for us than real meats?

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In a study from The University of Sydney and elsewhere, scientists found that although plant-based meat products are generally healthier than real meat proeducts, they can be higher in sugar and are often lacking important nutrients found in real meat.

Plant-based meats, or meat analogs, are designed to mimic meat products and act as a substitute for meat protein.

They are commonly made from plant-based vegetable protein (soy protein, wheat protein, pea and rice protein, or a combination) or fermentation-based fungus protein (mycoprotein).

Despite the growing popularity of plant-based meat substitutes—often based on health reasons—there is very little evidence of the actual health impact of these products.

The team says both plant-based and processed meats mostly fall into the ultra-processed category, so this raises concerns about their role in a healthy diet.

While they found plant-based meat products were generally healthier than their processed meat equivalents, healthier alternatives would still be lean unprocessed meats and legumes, beans and falafel.

In the study, the team used the Institute’s FoodSwitch database to assess and compare the nutrient content and nutritional quality of plant-based meat analogs and their equivalent meat products available in Australian supermarkets.

The types of meat products and plant-based meat analog equivalents studied were burgers, meatballs, mince, sausages, bacon, coated poultry, plain poultry, and meat with pastry.

The team found that overall, plant-based meat analogs have a healthier nutritional profile compared with equivalent meat products and their energy content was marginally lower.

While the protein content was similar in both categories, plant-based meat analogs on average had much less saturated fat and sodium, as well as more fiber than meat products.

But of the 132 plant-based meat analogs analyzed, only 12 percent were fortified with key micronutrients essential for health that are found in meat—iron, vitamin B12 and zinc.

This could lead to iron, zinc and B12 deficiencies over time if people are not boosting their intake of these essential nutrients from other sources or taking supplements.

To guard against this, people need to eat other animal proteins such as eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt and/or rich plant-based sources of iron include dark leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, as well as tofu, nuts and seeds, and beans and legumes.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about how Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and this plant nutrient could help reduce high blood pressure.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies that olive oil may help you live longer, and vitamin D could help lower the risk of autoimmune diseases.

The study was conducted by Maria Shahid et al and published in Nutrition & Dietetics.

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