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Are plant-based products healthy alternatives to animal-based?

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Consumption of plant-based alternative products is increasing; however, high levels of processing, varying nutrient content, and high salt content indicate the necessity for nutritional guidelines.

Innovation around plant-based alternative meat, fish, egg, and dairy products is fast-growing and is increasingly becoming competitive with animal products. This transition is motivated by different circumstances depending on the consumer’s age. This was revealed through a German online survey which discovered that 32% of older consumers (over 60 years old) abstain from meat for health reasons, while 27% of the 40 to 49 age group transition for animal welfare reasons. Furthermore, younger consumers (18 to 29 years old) are more concerned with environmental and climate impacts.1  

A recent online market analysis published in Nutrients (DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14030601), investigated the nutrient composition of plant-based meat and cheese products compared to their animal-based alternatives.  

The study took place in the first quarter of 2019 and 2021. Products were intended to mimic meat or cheese but consisted of primarily plant-based ingredients. The meat products were divided into two categories depending on whether the food is usually eaten hot or cold. To determine mineral and vitamin content, freeze-dried material was used.  

Investigators found that the availability of plant-based alternative products, especially meat and cheese alternatives, has increased in the last couple of years. Compared to animal-based products, the energy content of the alternative products was significantly lower in burgers, bratwurst, sausage, salami, sliced cheese, and cheddar. Total fat and saturated fatty-acid (SFA) content in meat alternatives was not substantial or significantly lower than in the animal products.  

The main protein sources for meat alternatives are soy, wheat, and pea. The protein quality of pea, soy, milk, and eggs for meat alternatives was comparable to beef in terms of essential amino acids; however, this did not hold true for wheat- or gluten-based products. Additionally, the protein content in all alternative cheese groups was substantially lower than in the animal-based products. The market analysis indicated that the salt content in plant-based meat alternatives was significantly higher than in the respective meat products. Additionally, the sodium content in all analysed plant-based alternatives was also significantly higher than in the respective animal-based products.  

Significantly higher Nutri-Scores were determined for meat products in nine of the twelve studied product groups, mainly due to high levels of SFA and salt; however, four of the five plant-based cheese product groups had a higher Nutri-Score than the animal-based ones. Iron content was found to be higher in plant-based compared to animal-based products; however, except for salami alternatives, the zinc content in plant-based products was significantly lower. Vitamin B12 was also found exclusively in animal products. 

The researchers conclude that “the content of fat, SFA, and salt in the plant-based products varied considerably. These nutrients are related to the most important dietary factor in the global burden of disease.” 

  

References 

1. Germany: Readly study provides insights into motivation to eat meatless [Internet]. Vegconomist. 2021 [cited 21 February 2022]. Available from: https://vegconomist.de/studien-und-zahlen/deutschland-readly-studie-liefert-erkenntnisse-ueber-motivation-sich-fleischlos-zu-ernaehren/ 

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