Stacking plant-based meat up against the real thing: ‘Often it has a slightly better nutritional composition’

The nutritional credentials of plant-based meat alternatives regularly come under fire for excessive salt, fat or calorie content. But a report coming out of the Netherlands suggests that when comparing the nutritional value of meat substitutes with their conventional counterparts, plant-based options often come out on top.

Overall, plant-based meat comes out on top

The report was conducted ProVeg Netherlands, the Dutch arm of ‘food awareness’ non-profit ProVeg International. The charity promotes the plant-based meat sector, since it aligns with its goal of halving global consumption of animals by 2040.

ProVeg compared 130 vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes with 41 animal reference products based on criteria set by the Netherlands Nutrition Centre. “With this study, we wanted to make a fair comparison by not only testing meat substitutes against the national criteria, but also contrasting them with the products they replace,” ​explained Martine van Haperen, nutrition and health expert at ProVeg.

“It is obvious that meat substitute manufacturers will not be able to make a plant-based meat product with the same salty, fatty taste [they like in sausage, eggs and bacon dishes] that simultaneously meets all the national health criteria. That is why our report compares the plant-based substitutes with similar meat products.”

On average, the charity found that plant-based products contained less saturated fat, fewer calories, and ‘significantly’ more dietary fibre – since meat does not contain any. The two product categories were found to have a similar percentage of calories from protein.

“It turned out that meat substitutes often have a slightly better nutritional composition,” ​concluded van Haperen. “So as a consumer, opting for a meat substitute over a processed animal meat product generally does not entail a compromise in terms of health.”

Dissecting the figures

Looking to specific product categories within the plant-based and meat comparison reveals that plant-based burgers, mince meat, meatballs, sausage and bacon received a better average score than animal meat when tested against the Netherlands Nutrition Centre criteria.

Similar scores were noted for shawarma and nuggets across meat and plant-based meat. And animal meat scored better in the categories of chicken chunks, chicken fillet and schnitzel.

Eighty-eight percent of the animal meat products met the protein criterion; 85% of the plant-based meat substitutes achieved this standard.

On average, all categories of meat substitutes were found to contain sufficient iron and vitamin B12, even when non-fortified products were included in the calculation. It should be noted that many plant-based meat substitutes are, indeed, high in micronutrients such as iron, but texturised proteins can’t always deliver on micronutrient bioavailability​.

“If consumers incorporate both fortified and non-fortified meat substitutes into their diet, their average intake of iron and vitamin B12 meets the criteria set for meat substitutes,” said​ van Haperen.

“Nevertheless, it would of course be better if even more meat substitutes were fortified with iron and vitamin B12, so that the nutritional value would correspond more closely with that of meat.”

The ultra-processing question

Just like in the conventional meat sector, major difference in ‘healthiness’ was observed between different plant-based meat products. Plant-based sausage, burgers and bacon alternatives are usually not considered healthy according to the national criteria. But ProVeg found that they often have a better composition than their animal meat counterparts.

The reason many meat substitutes do not meet all the national criteria often comes downs to elevated salt content. Meat substitutes are on average less salty than processed meat, but saltier than unprocessed meat.

But it’s not all about fat, salt or other problem nutrients. Growing awareness around ultra-processed food (UPF) is also conflicting with perceptions that plant-based automatically means healthier.

The question is sometimes raised as to whether meat substitutes made from processed plant proteins are a healthy alternative to animal meat. To this, van Haperen responds that not all ultra-processed foods are equal.

“According to the current definition, meat substitutes are considered to be 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 a sufficient indication as to whether or not meat substitutes are healthy.”