Plant-based products and health: Study reveals nutritional shortfalls, but saturated fat benefits

By Shali S.

- Last updated on GMT

The nutritional value of plant-based meats is limited by lack of key micronutrients, although they contain significantly less saturated fat. ©Getty Images
The nutritional value of plant-based meats is limited by lack of key micronutrients, although they contain significantly less saturated fat. ©Getty Images

Related tags plant-based Nutrition saturated fats

The nutritional value of plant-based meats is limited by lack of key micronutrients, although they contain significantly less saturated fat, indicates an assessment of products on the Hong Kong market.

Despite the rising interest in plant-based meat products, consumers continue to harbour reservations about meat analogues, primarily due to concerns related to their nutrition and safety. 

This is especially concerning as a significant proportion of plant-based meats (PBMs) are categorized as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which increase certain health risks such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. 

To assess these concerns surrounding nutrition in PBM, a group of researchers undertook a study​ to profile and assess the nutritional composition of PBM and compare it to traditional sources of meat. 

A total of 274 plant-based meat products and 151 meat products across 27 different brands on the Hong Kong market were examined in a cross-sectional survey in October 2022. 

100g of each type of PBM was compared to 100g of its corresponding meat source. Energy density, total fat, saturated fat, protein, salt and carbohydrates were the main characteristics analysed. 

  • Energy density:​ The energy density of 100g of plant-based meat was statistically lower ​than that of equivalent meat products. 
  • Total fat: ​Total fat was over 40% lower​ in both pork and poultry analogues than corresponding meat sources. 
  • Saturated fat:​ Saturated fat was significantly lower​ in all PBM categories and classifications (except plant-based seafood and seafood). For example, the average saturated fat content in beef products was over five times higher than in plant-based beef products.
  • Protein:​ There was no statistical difference​ between PBM products and their corresponding meat products, except plant-based seafood and seafood where the average amount of protein in seafood was nearly 58% higher than plant-based seafood.
     ​ 
  • Salt: ​Salt content in both plant-based and meat-based products showed no statistical differences​ in the categories of plain and breaded meat. Significant differences can be seen in the other categories, where mince showed lower salt than plant-based mince. 
  • Carbohydrate: ​Plant-based beef and plant-based seafood had similar contents of carbohydrates ​compared to corresponding meat types, while plant-based pork and plant-based poultry showed 51.1% and 48.5% higher carbohydrates​ as compared to traditional meat types. 

It should be noted that this study had several limitations, such as the selection bias for the range of products considered in the survey. Only products available on mainstream sale channels were analysed. 

It also only focused on nutrients that are required to appear in local food labeling regulations, such as fat, protein, carbohydrates, salt and sugar. However, non-obligatory nutrients such as vitamins, minerals were not counted. These factors would have provided a more comprehensive view of the study.

Further, the researchers advise that an investigation of additives and long-term impacts of eating PBMs is needed to build a more comprehensive understanding of its consumption. 

The study concluded with a suggestion for PBM manufacturers and retailers:

“Our research suggests that given the special characteristics of PBM products, nutrients of plant origin that cannot compensate for animal meat, such as vitamin B12, may be considered for inclusion in the labelling requirements for PBM products. We also suggest that PBM manufacturers add trace elements which are unique to animal meat in the development process to better enhance the nutritional value of PBMs.” 

The study also noted that people who regularly consume plant-based meats (PBMs) may face potential deficiencies in certain animal-derived micronutrients, such as zinc and iron, in the long run. To address this, the researchers indicated that it is necessary to regularly incorporate fortified foods containing necessary nutrients into a regular diet. 

Study: Nutritional Assessment of Plant-Based Meat Products Available on Hong Kong Market: A Cross-Sectional Survey

Source: Nutrients

DOI: 10.3390/nu15173684

Authors: Qile Zhang, et al

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