Plant-based meat substitutes in the flexitarian age: an audit of products on supermarket shelves

Citation: Curtain F, Grafenauer S. Plant-Based Meat Substitutes in the Flexitarian Age: An Audit of Products on Supermarket Shelves. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 30;11(11):2603. doi: 10.3390/nu11112603. PMID: 31671655; PMCID: PMC6893642. 

Relevant to: 

Public health Dietitians-Nutritionists working on government policy and Dietitians-Nutritionists in education and nutrition care.   

Question:

This Australian study compared plant-based meat substitutes that mimicked meat with equivalent meat products; it examined ingredients, nutrition information panel, health and nutrition claims, Health Star Rating (Australian), and any additional logos and endorsements. The study did not include traditional vegetarian meat alternatives such as such as tofu, tempeh, and falafel.

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

There is a wide range of ingredients in these products, and they are not necessarily similar to, or healthier than meat.  
Guidance needs to be provided to consumers about creating healthy plant-based diets. This lack of nutritional equivalence with similar meat products could be especially problematic for those who may already not have enough of some key nutrients.  

Abstract:

Demand for plant-based meat substitutes is growing globally for nutritional and environmental reasons, with Australia the third-fastest growing vegan market worldwide. This study aimed to profile and compare plant-based meat substitutes (mimicking meat) with equivalent meat products, and 2015 data. An audit undertaken in May (updated in September 2019) from four metropolitan Sydney supermarkets (Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, IGA), collected nutrition information and Health Star Rating (HSR) from 137 products (50 burgers, 10 mince, 29 sausages, 24 chicken, 9 seafood, 15 other). Mean (± standard deviation (SD)) and median (range) was calculated for nutrients and HSR. Plant-based options were generally lower in kilojoules, total and saturated fat, higher in carbohydrate, sugars, and dietary fibre compared with meat. Only 4% of products were low in sodium (58–1200 mg/100 g). Less than a quarter of products (24%) were fortified with vitamin B12, 20% with iron, and 18% with zinc. HSR featured on 46% (3.6–4.4 stars). On-pack claims were vegetarian/vegan/plant-based (80%), protein (63%), non-genetically modified/organic (34%), gluten free (28%). Product numbers increased five-fold (↑429%) in four years. The plant protein trend has prompted innovation in meat substitutes, however wide nutrient ranges and higher sodium levels highlights the importance of nutrition guidelines in their development to ensure equivalence with animal-based proteins.

Details of results: 

In general, compared to meat, these plant-based meat substitutes were lower in energy and total and saturated fat, and were higher in carbohydrate, sugars and dietary fibre. Less than 24% were fortified with vitamin B12, iron and zinc (which are naturally present in meat). Micronutrients such as selenium, phosphorus, niacin or amino acid profile were not studied, but may also be important to consider. 
 
Some of the plant-based products were higher sodium than meat, but others were not. Similarly, some met Australian sodium reformulation targets, but some did not. The authors suggest that high sodium levels have also been demonstrated in other studies of these products, and is of particular importance as sodium is a lead dietary factor in the global burden of disease.  

Two-thirds of products studied contained legumes (these products had between 9%–65% legume ingredients). Twenty percent of burgers contained >8 g whole grain per serving size. The authors suggest that some of these products may be used to increase the intake of legumes and whole grains in a convenient type of food that has known acceptability. They also pose that nutrition claims and labelling could be more consistently and effectively used for this category. 

Consumers may assume that the products: a) have a nutrition profile similar to meat, and b) are healthier (“health halo” effect). There are, however, no universal regulations related to characterizing plant-based meat substitutes that mimic the taste, texture, and appearance of animal-based products. The authors suggest that governments set product reformulation regulations for plant-based meat and dairy substitutes. Reformulation policy occurs where the government sets standards for food reformulation to improve nutrient composition while still appealing to consumer interests such as taste, convenience and affordability. Fortification with vitamins and sodium restriction are examples that have occurred in many countries. 

Of additional interest: 

The authors alluded to studies which suggested that these products are not necessarily used by vegans/ vegetarians, but more so by those interested in decreasing meat (e.g., flexitarian). They further pose that these products may be more socially and culturally acceptable (depending on region) as easily stand in for traditional meat (e.g., plant-based burger versus regular at fast food restaurant, or at a family/ friends’ barbeque). They also cite a recent study which found that taste, appearance and availability were far more important than environmental arguments for those purchasing from this category.  

Editor’s comment:

Each product needs to be considered independently, and in the context of the broader diet or menu pattern.  

Open access link to article: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893642/ 

Conflict of interest/ Funding:

Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (a not-for-profit charity) funded the research.  

External relevant links: 

See WHO summary sheet on food product reformulation: https://www.who.int/nmh/ncd-coordination-mechanism/Policybrief32.pdf 

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