What you need to know about plant-based meat alternatives

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Contents

 

What are processed foods?

What are meat substitutes made of?

Why are processed foods bad for you? 

How to get more unprocessed, meat-free protein into your diet? 

What next? 

 

Put down your lamb chops and pick up your lentils, it’s National Vegetarian Week! 

Now more than ever is a great time to start introducing more plant-based meals into your diet if you don’t already. 

Due to anxieties over health and the climate, more than 25 percent of us in the UK are thinking about cutting down our meat consumption – a relatively achievable goal considering the explosion of the meat-free market in recent years. 

However, where meatless substitutes are concerned, it is important to remember that processed alternatives are not the most nutritious or necessarily most affordable way to consume vegetarian grub.

Priya Tew, director of Dietitian UK told the Guardian that feasting on ultra-processed foods can be worse for your health than eating meat in terms of their nutritional value. 

Instead, relying on the likes of tofu, whole grains, protein-dense fruits and vegetables, pulses and legumes is said to provide a far more nourishing diet. 

But what is the evidence for this and just how bad are ultra-processed, plant-based meat alternatives for your health? 

What are processed foods? 

 

Processed foods occur in more forms than you would initially think – they can be anything from canned, baked and dried goods to amalgamations of broken down foods which are pumped full of preservatives, additives and chemicals.

According to the NOVA classifications, there are four types of processed foods: 

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods – these are products which exist in their natural form or have had minimal alterations to preserve the food for longer. 
  • Processed culinary ingredients – such items are not usually eaten by themselves and usually derive from a slightly processed food. These ingredients tend to be formed from pressing, grinding, refining or milling processed food. 
  • Processed foods – including products such as canned fruits and vegetables, these are items which are natural or minimally processed with the deliberate addition of salts, fats or sugars. 
  • Ultra-processed foods – by far the worst nutritionally-speaking, these products are processed foods which have artificial colours, flavours and preservatives added to them to improve their taste, texture or shelf life. 

What are meat substitutes made of? 

 

The first vegetarian or vegan meat alternative to have been consumed is thought to have been a soy-based tofu product which was eaten in China, roughly two thousand years ago in 965 CE

Today, everything from pea protein, jackfruit and mung beans to yeast extract, potato starch and xanthan gum are used to make meatless morsels. 

However, whilst the majority of these products are plant-based in theory, the many ingredients included to create meat-free foods which taste and look like the real deal have to go through several manufacturing processes to get there. 

Why are processed foods bad for you?

 

The main issue with processed and ultra-processed foods is their nutritional deficiency; consuming a diet that is almost entirely made up of processed food can be extremely detrimental to your health

Whilst they might be better for our planet than mass livestock farming, plant-based meat alternatives, which tend to be ultra-processed, are not necessarily good for our own physical wellbeing. 

“Ultra-processed foods tend to be low in protein and fibre, and high in salt, sugar and fat. That’s their problem”, said Dr Giles Yeo, an obesity expert at Cambridge University. 

Speaking on Radio 4’s Inside Health, Dr Yeo further explained that mock meat products suffer from this problem as the multiple components used to make them are stripped of their protein and fibre and combined with high quantities of salts, fats and sugars to boost flavour. 

This is not to say that fake meat should be categorically avoided, just that they should be eaten in moderation. After all, they inherently minimise the many proven health risks which come with consuming lots of real meat. 

How to get more unprocessed, meat-free protein into your diet? 

 

We live in a nation where more than half of the average person’s diet is made up of ultra-processed foods and meeting your daily protein intake can be tricky when you are confined to unprocessed, vegetarian or vegan conditions. 

Add cost into the mix and this task seems impossible. 

Yet despite the fact that unhealthy foods are three times cheaper than healthy alternatives, there are some ways to ensure you meet your protein requirements on your terms.

  1. Make use of dried pulses and legumes – they are an excellent source of lean, healthy protein and are extremely versatile. There is a vast amount of vegan and vegetarian recipes online and on social media which show you how to make meat substitutes from the likes of lentils, chickpeas and beans that maximise on flavour and texture. Dried legumes and pulses are also much cheaper than their canned counterparts. 
  2. Eat less processed plant proteins such as tofu, seitan and tempeh which can be adapted into many dishes and cuisines. 
  3. Up your vegetable intake and do your research on the most protein-packed greens. Buying your veggies loose or from local grocers can be a good way to reduce the price too. 

 

What next? 

 

If you’ve just read the above and think you’ve been eating one too many of Linda McCartney’s sausages recently, fear not. Head over to our superfood blog for a head start on the best, unprocessed produce to include in your meals.