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January 30, 2023

Plant-based meats often lack essential nutrients, and can be high in sugar, study finds

Few meat analogues are fortified with iron, zinc and vitamin B-12. Dietitians say people who eat these products need to find other ways to get those minerals and vitamins

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Plant Based Meats Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA

Plant-based meat products generally are considered to be healthier than processed meats, but many of them are not fortified with iron, zinc and vitamin B12 – nutrients that are commonly found in animal protein, a new study finds.

Plant-based meats have become more popular in recent years, with consumers being able to find alternatives to everything from hot dogs to breakfast sausages. 

And though plant-based meats are generally considered the healthier option, they sometimes lack nutrients found in their meat equivalents, a new study found.

In testing 132 plant-based meat products, researchers in Australia found that they offered similar amounts of protein when compared to equivalent meat products. But only 12% of plant-based meats were fortified with iron, zinc and B-12 – nutrients that are commonly found in animal protein. Plant-based meats also can be high in sugar.

Iron is essential for growth and development. The body uses the mineral to make hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to organs and tissue. Zinc, another mineral, is needed to support the immune system, and B-12, a vitamin, plays a major role in the body's red blood cell formation, cell metabolism and nerve function.

Maria Shahid, a data analyst at the George Institute for Global Health, which conducted the study, said both meat options are concerning when it comes to healthy eating.

"Both plant-based and processed meats mostly fall into the ultra-processed category, so this raises concerns about their role in a healthy diet," Shahid said. "While we found plant-based meat products were generally healthier than their processed meat equivalents, healthier alternatives would still be lean unprocessed meats and legumes, beans and falafel."

Plant-based meats are typically made from peas, soy, wheat gluten and rice. Though they may lack some essential vitamins, the researchers found they generally have less saturated fat and sodium than meat products. They also offer more fiber. Processed and red meats also have been linked to cancer.

Daisy Coyle, a dietitian at the George Institute, recommended people eat plant-based meat products in moderation until more is known about their health impacts. 

"But it isn't as simple as a straight swap – solely relying on meat alternatives as a direct replacement for meat could lead to iron, zinc and B12 deficiencies over time if you are not boosting your intake of these essential nutrients from other sources or taking supplements," Coyle said.

To avoid these deficiencies, Coyle advised people to eat eggs and dairy products to gain essential animal proteins, and to consume iron-rich foods like chick peas, nuts and dark, leafy greens. 

"Until we know more about the health impacts of plant-based meat analogues and have recommendations on how to include them as part of a healthy balanced diet, its best to eat them in moderation along with other plant-based proteins such as bean patties, falafel and tofu, or if you are not vegetarian or vegan, unprocessed lean meats and seafood."

Deena Champion, a registered dietician at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, examined the nutritional value of plant-based meats in a blog post last year. She noted that a plant-based label doesn't necessarily mean a food is healthier.

"Many alternatives to animal products, including alternatives to cheeses, contain coconut oil which is a saturated fat," Champion wrote. "Again, moderation is key here."

Champion also recommended people opt for meat alternatives made with whole foods, noting she has enjoyed frozen veggie burgers made with lentils, kale, sweet potatoes and flax. They were high in fiber, protein and nutrients – and tasted good, she said.

"This is an example of a product that, nutritionally, was a better option than meat," Champion wrote. "However, I've seen some vegan or plant-based options that are nutritionally worse or no better than their meat counterparts."

Plant-based meats soared in popularity in 2020. Sales increased by 45%, according to data collected by the Good Food Institute. Plant-based food dollar sales grew by 6% – three times faster than overall food sales. 

But that growth flatlined in 2021 and began falling in 2022, the Washington Post reported in November. That may partly be due to the price of plant-based meats. Plant-based beef is twice as expensive as beef and plant-based chicken is four times as expensive as chicken. 

Another factor is unclear health benefits. The second generation of plant-based food products were marketed toward flexitarians – people who are seeking to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, their meat consumption. 

"But once the novelty went away, the consumer started to read the label," JP Frossard, a consumer foods analyst at Rabobank, told the Post. "Meat has one ingredient and now you’re looking at products with 15. People started asking, 'What is methyl cellulose and why am I paying a premium for it?'"

For people who are looking to adopt healthier lifestyles, leaner meats are better, Champion wrote, noting it's ideal to add plants to one's diet.

"In general, we always want to (choose) more minimally processed foods for the majority of our diet," Champion wrote. "Highly processed foods often contain added salt, fat and sugar, which in high amounts can cause problems. Plus, when we fill up on highly processed foods, we leave less room for healthier options."

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