There has been a proliferation of meat substitute produces in recent years, but an expert from a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic, is warning that just because a product is vegetarian or vegan, it does not necessarily mean it is healthy.
Dietitian Camille Skoda says: “There’s a new generation of faux meat products that are highly processed to mimic the look, flavour and texture of the real thing.
“For anyone looking to pare back their meat consumption, these products can help ease the transition, but some are far healthier than others.”
She suggests looking for plant-based proteins.
While good-quality meat can provide your body with a plethora of different vitamins, minerals and nutrients, plant-based proteins have their own unique set of benefits, Skoda says.
“Having one meatless meal per day, or one meatless day in a week, can help you to diversify your diet, add fibre, and include other sources of protein,” she says.
Whole-food sources of plant protein, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole soy, provide fibre and prebiotics to help your gut stay healthy. They also contain sustainable carbohydrates and healthy fats that can help balance blood sugars, Skoda adds.
Studies have also linked plant-based diets with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other health benefits.
Skoda advises consumers to study the ingredients panel carefully.
While many packaged meat substitutes are made with healthy, whole-food plant proteins and ingredients, not all of them are.
“Some of these products have added preservatives, sugars, inflammatory oils or other ingredients that we don’t want,” Skoda says.
She recommends considering your personal dietary needs and looking at the nutrition panel to determine the following:
What is the protein source?
“Some meat substitutes are made with pea protein or beans, which is great,” Skoda says.
“Others are made with soy protein isolate (a processed form of soy) or wheat gluten. Those are the ones you want to avoid.”
Does it contain simple ingredients?
Some of the newer faux meat products contain hard-to-pronounce ingredients like methylcellulose (a thickener) and soy leghemoglobin (a genetically engineered protein).
For the healthiest options, look for ingredient labels that contain mostly recognisable whole foods.
How much protein does it have?
Ideally, you want to eat about 20g of protein per meal, Skoda recommends.
“If you plan to use this product as a protein substitute, look for one that will provide you with at least 10 to 15g of protein, assuming that some of the other foods you’re pairing it with will also help you get to that 20g,” she says.
What is the sodium and sugar content?
While meat substitutes are usually free of cholesterol, some are higher in sodium than meat and may contain added sugars.
Another option, she suggests, is to stick to the classics, such as tofu.
Packaged plant-based products that imitate beef, chicken and pork may be a convenient 1:1 substitute at a barbecue, but there are plenty of other plant proteins that can be easily incorporated into a person’s everyday diet.
Her suggestions are to swap out meat in a recipe for:
> Tofu, which is made from the whole soybean (rather than an extract) and is considered a complete protein. Skoda recommends choosing one that is non-GMO or organic and tossing it into a stir-fry, or crisping it in the oven.
> Tempeh, which is a good option for someone who does not like the mushy texture of tofu. It is also made from whole soybeans but has the added benefit of being fermented, which may help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. It is also generally higher in protein than tofu and provides ample amounts of calcium, iron and manganese.
> Lentils and beans, which are a good source of fibre and nutrients. Skoda advises tossing them on top of a salad, using them in soups and stir-fries, or making a bean-based veggie burger at home.
“However, if you’re following a lower-carb eating plan, know that beans also contain carbohydrates,” Skoda adds.