The alternative protein segment has grown hugely in recent years. Where once upon a time vegetarians and vegans were limited to a few sad, mealy "sausages" and the mysteriously named "textured vegetable protein" (TVP); now the shelves and chillers in the supermarkets are bulging with options, including vegan burgers, no-chicken-chicken, fish-free fish, vegan mince and more. Meat-free meat now sits alongside the real deal in the chillers. But is choosing these products really going to do our health any good? Could they be worse for us than meat?
The Heart Foundation in Australia reckons we could be practicing what I call false health economy by choosing some meat-free meats. In a collaboration with The George Institute for Global Health it has surveyed what's available on the shelves there, and found many of these foods come up short, health-wise.
Its report revealed many meat alternatives are highly processed and packed with salt. The research looked at 190 products, and found some popular ones were hiding unhealthy surprises. The worst was a vegetarian pie with half a day's worth of salt in one serving. Super-salty categories were meat-free bacon, falafels and sausages.
Salt is an often-ignored risk. A large report earlier this year published in the Lancet put salt top of the global pops, well ahead of sugar (or meat for that matter) when it comes to premature deaths, finding too much salt (sodium) is responsible for the disease-related deaths of three million people worldwide each year. We know that, on average, Kiwis eat almost twice as much salt as is recommended.
While eating more plants is a great idea for heath and sustainability, it might not be the best idea to get those plants in the form of plant-based meat alternatives. Or at least, not some of them.
Having looked at lots of these products here, my feeling is they're not yet where they need to be to become an established part of our future flexitarian diets.
There's a lot of enthusiasm to develop alternative proteins, and while yes, they are meat free, many are not yet hitting the mark, health wise.
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The much-hyped Beyond Burger, for example, has 22 ingredients. It's a highly processed food imported from the USA; the type of thing that makes people who want to eat whole, natural food uncomfortable. It's moderately high in sodium at 390mg per patty. For comparison, the same amount of beef mince (one ingredient) has just 77mg.
A "fish-free fish" fillet I looked at recently was similar; more than 30 ingredients had been employed in the service of making something that looked and tasted similar to a battered fish fillet, but was no better, nutritionally.
If we are serious about wanting to eat more meat-free meals, the answer probably doesn't lie, at the moment, in processed meat alternatives. We're far better off choosing whole foods: beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts – and even old-school meat alternatives like tofu and tempeh, which score far better on the sodium front as well as the level of processing.
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide; www.healthyfood.com