The popularity of vegetable proteins, or ‘mock meat’, has increased in recent years as consumers want to eat less animal products. In fact, plant protein is expected to be a A$3 billion opportunities for Australia in 2030.
Many consumers think that this fake meat is better for their health and also for the environment, but is that true?
What is fake meat?
It may sound obvious, but the first thing to say is that fake meat is not meat. Referring to these products as meat has been widely criticized by the meat industry, resulting in a recent Senate Committee Report recommending mandatory regulations for the labeling of plant products.
Fake meat falls into two categories: vegetable proteins and cell-based proteins.
The vegetable burgers and sausages that can be found on supermarket shelves are made by extracting the protein from plant foods, often peas, soy, wheat protein and mushrooms.
But countless additives are needed to make these products look and taste like traditional meat.
For example, chemically refined coconut oil and palm oil are often added to vegetable burgers to mimic the tender and juicy texture of meat. Coloring agents, such as beet extracts, have been used in Beyond Meat’s “raw” burger to mimic the color change that occurs when meat is cooked. And the additive soy leghemoglobin, produced by genetically engineered yeast, has been used to Impossible Foods “bleeding” burger.
Something not yet available on supermarket shelves in Australia is cell based or “cultured” meat. This fake meat is made from an animal cell which is then grown in a lab culture to make a cut of meat. While it may sound like a distant concept, Australia already has two cell-based meat producers.
Is fake meat healthier?
In good news, a audition of more than 130 products available in Australian supermarkets, plant-based products were found to contain, on average, fewer calories and saturated fat and more carbohydrates and fiber than meat products.
But not all plant-based products are created equal.
In fact, there are significant nutritional differences between products. For example, the saturated fat content of vegetable burgers in this audit ranged from 0.2 to 8.5 grams per 100 grams, meaning that some vegetable products contain more saturated fat than a beef patty.
Salinity in plant products are high, but vary between products. Vegetable minced meat can be used up to six times more sodium than meat equivalents, while vegetable sausages have an average of two-thirds less sodium.
The question then is: does exchanging animal foods for plant foods improve health?
An eight weeks process of 36 U.S. adults studied this, and researchers found that switching to eating more plant-based products (while keeping all other foods and drinks as equal as possible) improved heart disease risk factors, including cholesterol levels and body weight. However, Research this area is still in its infancy and long-term trials are needed.
The bottom line is that most fake meats are classified as ultra-processed foods.
They have undergone extensive industrial processing and contain substances of “no or rare culinary use”, meaning you wouldn’t find them in your average kitchen cupboard.
There is an opportunity for the government and the food industry to ensure that these highly processed plant products are reformulated to contain less saturated fat and sodium, and to minimize the use of chemically derived additives.
Is fake meat better for the environment?
Yes it can be.
The United States More than meat burger claims to use 99% less water and 93% less land and produce 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than a traditional beef patty.
Still, the environmental footprint of plant-based products is a controversial topic, especially as ultra-processed foods have been widely criticized as being ecologically unsustainable.
A study published this month in The Lancet Planetary Health looked at the ethical and economic implications of eating more plant-based products. Researchers concluded that switching from beef to plant-based products would reduce the carbon footprint of U.S. food production by 2.5-13.5%, by reducing the number of animals needed to produce beef by 2-12 million.
However, researchers noted that any benefits to the agricultural workforce and natural resources were less clear.
Should we eat fake meat then?
Fake meat can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet as an “sometimes food”.
When choosing plant-based products, check the label to choose options with lower salt content and more fiber.
If you’re looking for a meat alternative that’s both healthy for you and the environment, plant-based foods are by far the best option for a vegetable or flexitarian diet.
Fresh or canned legumes, beans, and chickpeas can be used to make your own meat-free burgers, and herbs and spices can add flavor to tofu.
Eating these whole plant foods also aligns with the Australian Guide to Healthy Eatingwhich recommends choosing lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans, and cutting back on cured meats such as salami, bacon, and sausages.
- Katherine LivingstoneNHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University and Laura MarchesePhD Student at the Institute for Exercise and Nutrition, Deakin University
- 1 What is fake meat?
- 2 Is fake meat healthier?
- 3 Is fake meat better for the environment?
- 4 Should we eat fake meat then?