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As demand for plant-based products rockets, people are taking an interest in meatless meals. Meat substitutes seem like an obvious choice to many consumers. However, this term encompasses a wide range of foods with various pros and cons.

Processed meat

Ever wondered which type of food has the biggest environmental impact? The answer is red and processed meats. Also, processed meat is classed as an agent that causes cancer by the World Health Organization. Choosing plant-based alternatives is kind to the environment as well as animals, and arguably, always a healthier option.

Salt shockers

It’s important for consumers to be aware that some meat substitutes are very salty. For example, two soya sausages from certain brands contain nearly as much salt as two rashers of bacon. High salt intakes have been linked to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart and blood vessel disease.

The daily salt limit is set at 6g for adults. In relation to food labels, more than 1.5g per 100g is a high amount.

As you might expect, salt limits are lower for little ones. For example, four to six year olds should consume no more than 3g per day. Beans and chickpeas canned in water, red split lentils, plain tofu and the dry variety of soya mince are great low salt sources of protein for children.

Protein hits & misses

From a protein perspective, not every meat alternative is a good substitute. Products made from beans, cashew nuts, soya and Vegan Quorn are protein-rich options. However, if you’re eating a meat substitute based on potato, mushrooms, aubergine or jackfruit, you can balance your meal by adding food that contains good quality plant protein, such as pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice or soya yoghurt.

Nutritional value

Anyone wanting to get the most nutritional bang for their buck needs to choose their protein sources wisely. Processed foods can significantly bump up food bills. For example, it’s possible to get over 30 servings of red split lentils for about the same price as two meatless burgers. Relying on convenience food can limit the amount of money available for buying health-promoting fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and nuts, and consequently, prevent someone from making the most of their diet.

Promoting legumes

Encouraging people to make burgers using beans, chickpeas or lentils means that they know exactly what’s in their meat substitute. Legumes are packed full of fibre and can count as one of your five-a-day. They’re an affordable, ethical and sustainable source of protein. It’s no wonder that the UK’s Eatwell Guide encourages everyone to eat more beans and pulses.

It’s important to familiarize people with different ways of enjoying legumes. Why not offer recipes for chickpea cutlets and kidney bean balls? Or how about asking a local chef to demonstrate how to make black bean burgers in-store?

If you’d like to learn more about vegan nutrition, check out the resources at vegansociety.com/nutrition, including the free VNutrition app.

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About the Author

Heather Russell

Dietician, The Vegan Society
Heather Russell is a trained dietician. Having left the NHS where she worked from 2010 to 2016 (specialising in diabetes from 2013 onwards) Russell now applies her dietetic skills to supporting the work of The Vegan Society.

Articles by Heather Russell
Heather Russell

One Response to Meat substitutes: a vegan dietitian’s perspective

  1. Avatar
    David West March 22, 2019 at 7:21 pm #

    Dear Heather
    Thank you for your article about some of the pros and cons regarding some of the vegan foods many of the new vegans may now be using.
    I thought I may add that there are hazards to be aware of in many vegan cheeses and desserts. That is carrageenan, a known inflammatory agent, especially in the stomach and digestive tract. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/carrageenan
    and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-carrageenan-controversy/
    Like colours and preservatives, it is only a matter of time before the risks are better understood, with resulting bans or removal from ‘healthy’ foods.
    A media company could easily have a go at vegan foods citing carrageenan in vegan cheeses, such that dairy cheese is shown to be far more healthy.
    Califa Almond milks clearly state ‘Carrageenan Free’ as a selling point!
    Time to influence all those enthusiastic new vegan companies to review their use of Carageenan!
    Hope that is of interest ..
    Kind regards
    David West

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