1 in 4 meat substitutes do not contain enough protein

14 Apr 2021

One in four plant-based protein options does not contain sufficient protein to be considered a source of protein, according to Irish industry watchdog Safefood in a new report. Despite the incongruity between 25% of labels professing products to be an alternative source of protein and the lack of this nutrient in the products themselves, the report noted that consumers are turning to these meat analogs because they are perceived to be better-for-you.

In its findings, Safefood found that consumers may be unaware of this disconnect between perceived health benefits of plant-based alternatives and reality. “The reality is that these are processed foods and a bit of a mixed bag. If you are going to eat them, read the label and look for products that are a good source of protein and lower in saturated fat, sugar and salt,” said Catherine Conlon, Director of Human Health & Nutrition with Safefood.

1 in 4 meat substitutes do not contain enough protein
Image via LikeMeat on Unsplash

This report focused on analyzing plant-based alternatives such as mince, burgers and sausages, which are positioned in a category of foods that provide protein such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts and beans.

While the report found that a full quarter of products contained quantities of protein too insufficient to be considered a source of the nutrient, the report noted another quarter of the tested products were a source of protein and 49% were a source of high protein. But the findings in the report did not match what manufacturers were advertising on labels. Half of the products tested made protein-related claims, with 11% saying they were a source of protein and 39% claiming to be high in protein.

In addition to protein claims, 80% of the products claimed to contain a source of fiber, but the Safefood report noted this was due to the origin of meat analogs from plant-based sources; animal-based meat does not contain fiber in its natural form.

This is not the first time that experts have disagreed with the perceived health halo surrounding plant-based food. Dieticians have argued that the quantities of sodium and saturated fat in vegan meat are equivalent to what is in a beef patty, and experts point out that the way in which these meat analogs are created puts them in the category of processed foods rather than whole foods.

Nevertheless, the rise of plant-based alternatives continues. According to 2019 Mintec data cited by Safefood, vegan was the third fastest growing on-pack claim for food and drink launches globally between 2014 and 2019, with sales in the UK of meat-free foods forecasted to be in excess of €1 billion by 2024. This growth is driven by the fact that more consumers are looking to curtail their meat intake for health reasons. In the U.K. one in three adults (34%) said they ate plant-based versions of burgers, sausages, chicken or fish. Almost eight in ten people (79%) who eat meat-substitute products do so once a month or more often. The U.S. is not far behind with Mintel data indicating nearly 60% of U.S. consumers have expressed interest in eating less meat.

Personal health is the primary driver for this increase in non-animal protein. Safetrak found in a 2020 study that the top reasons for eating plant-based alternatives are due to their perception as ‘healthy or better for you’ (33%), the taste (21%) and the reduced environmental impact (15%).

While more and more individuals are becoming regular customers of plant-based products, Safefood warned that while meat alternatives products can fit into a healthy diet, they are still highly processed foods and so consumption should be limited accordingly.

“Many of these plant-based products are simply highly processed foods – if you think about it, eating a sausage roll whether that’s plant-based or meat, is still a sausage roll,” said Conlon.

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