Are meat-free products better for you?

There's a growing trend towards eating less meat and more plant-based foods. But are all meat-free products equal? Find out what to look for when you're shopping and the best foods to include in your plant-based diet.

Growth in plant-based eating

A recent survey of 1107 New Zealanders found that one third of people were choosing to eat less meat. This doesn't mean that everyone was vegan or vegetarian, but it suggests that no matter what style of eating, more people are choosing to eat a bit less meat and probably more plant foods too1.

So, what’s motivating this change? From those surveyed, health was the number one reason, closely followed by the environment, animal welfare and the cost of meat1.

A plant-based diet lowers your risk of heart disease and benefits your overall health2. Plant foods like vegetables, fruit and legumes are low in saturated fat and contain heart-healthy fats and fibre. Every plant gives our bodies different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which offer protection against disease3. So the more varied your plant-based diet is, the better!

More on plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets.

Common meat-free products

With this trend we're seeing an increase in the range of meat-free products on supermarket shelves. Meat-free products are usually made from soy or other plant-based protein-rich foods, like legumes, and are sold in many forms, from burger patties to mince.

Many of these products are marketed as 'alternatives' to meat and they don’t claim to taste, look and cook like meat. However, we're now starting to see products designed to mimic the taste and appearance of meat too1.

How much salt is in meat-free products?

A recent Australian report has shown the salt levels in various meat-free products available in Australian supermarkets4. These products are often marketed as 'plant-based' and 'organic' however many are highly processed and can hide high levels of salt.

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. It's the sodium that raises blood pressure and is linked with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. We can easily eat too much salt each day, particularly if our diets contain processed and manufactured foods. On average, Kiwis eat around 1.5 teaspoons of salt per day, which is one and half times the recommended maximum intake. Read more on salt and blood pressure.

What was clear from the research is that there's a wide range in the salt levels between different meat-free products. Falafel, meat-free bacon and meat-free burgers had the biggest variation between brands. For example, one falafel product had 1260mg sodium (per 100g) whereas, another falafel product had a much lower level of 124mg sodium (per 100g).

There’s a wide range of fresh and frozen meat-free products in New Zealand and the situation is likely to be similar. One New Zealand vegetarian burger brand contains 1100mg sodium (per 100g) – which is just under half the maximum daily amount of salt recommended for the day.

Average sodium levels in meat-free products. Flavoured tofu – 404mg/100g Plain tofu – 35mg/100g  Meat-free bacon – 818mg/100g Falafel – 519mg/100g Meat-free sausages – 506mg/100g Meat-free burgers – 410mg/100g  Other meat-free products i.e. mince – 393mg/100g

What are the healthiest plant foods?

The best foods for our bodies are foods that have had little to no processing. This includes fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit, whole grains like oats, brown rice and barley, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, and nuts and seeds.

Any foods that have been highly processed are likely to have a longer list of ingredients and salt, saturated fat or sugar added during processing.

edamame beans, legumes, baked beans, burger, falafel showing each product in a more processed stage

Five tips for choosing the best meat-free products

1. Choose fresh and whole foods where possible

Make whole foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes the main part of your meals and snacks instead of relying on processed and packaged meat-free products.  

Meat-free products are a quick and easy option and can be great to have on hand when you’re pushed for time, but we recommend basing your meals around whole foods when you can.

mixture of fruit and vegetables on table

2. Read the label

Not all meat-free products are equal and there's a huge range in the amount of sodium, additives and preservatives between brands. Read the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) and choose the product with lowest sodium per 100 grams. Less is better, especially if you're managing high blood pressure. 

The ingredients list can also help you to find a product that is less processed. Search for products with the least number of ingredients. More on reading food labels.

3. Choose plain meat-free products instead of flavoured versions

Choose unflavoured tofu , tempeh and other meat-free products like Quorn and add your own herbs and spices for flavour during cooking. Flavoured meat-free products (like mozzarella flavoured meat-free sausages) are likely to contain more ingredients and salt than unflavoured versions.

tofu on chopping board

4. Try using dried or canned legumes

Legumes like lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans are a cheap and easy way to include protein, fibre, iron and zinc in your diet. Choose legumes canned in springwater or drain and rinse the salty brine before using.

different legumes on spoons

5. Make your own

Try making a batch of falafel or meat-free patties in advance and freezing them so that they're ready when you're short on time. Home-made versions are not only lower in salt, but they taste better too.

Here are some great recipes to get you started:

homemade falafels on plate with salad and pita bread

No matter what – less processed is best

A plant-based diet doesn't have to mean 'plant-only'. What’s most important is the quality of the plant foods that make it into your shopping trolley.

Whatever diet you choose, remember that any foods that have been highly processed should be eaten less regularly – whether they’re plant-based or not.

Browse healthy recipesEating for a healthy heart
Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

References

[1] Colmar Brunton. Hungry for Plant-Based: New Zealand Consumer Insights. October 2019. https://www.foodfrontier.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Hungry-For-Plant-Based-New-Zealand-Consumer-Insights-Oct-2019.pdf#gf_2 (PDF)

[2] Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF et al. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science Nutrition. 2017;57(17):3640-3649.

[3] Melina V. Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016;116(12):1970-1980

[4] The George Institute for Global Health. Salt levels in meat alternatives in Australia (2010-2019). September 2019. https://www.georgeinstitute.org/sites/default/files/meat_alternatives_key_findings_report.pdf (PDF)