safefood research reveals not all meat alternative source of protein

Northern Ireland consumers are buying vegetarian meat alternatives believing they are sources of protein – but new research by safefood has revealed they could be mistaken.

One in four vegetarian meat alternative products (25%) is not a protein source, despite resembling meat products such as burger, sausages and mince, safefood says in its new report ¹.

The research also reveals that one in three people who buy these products do so because they believe them to be “healthy/better for you”.

According to industry reports², vegan is the third fastest growing on-pack claim for new food & drink launches globally over the last five years. Meanwhile, UK sales of meat-free foods are forecast to top £1 billion by 2024.

The new research probed the nutritional content of 354 vegetarian meat substitutes found on supermarket shelves across Ireland and Northern Ireland, including plant-based alternatives to mince, burger and sausages. These products are marketed in a category of foods that provide protein alongside meat, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts and beans, yet may have a very different nutritional value.

Dr Catherine Conlon, Director of Human Health & Nutrition with safefood, says: “Judging by the number of vegetarian meat alternative products now available, there’s clearly a market for these as plant-based alternatives to meats such as beef or chicken.

“From vegetarian meat alternative burgers to sausages and mince, these are now popular choices for many people who want an alternative source of protein in their diet or want to eat them for ethical or environmental reasons.

“However, one in four of the products we surveyed were not an adequate source of protein.

“When we asked people about vegetarian meat alternative products, a third of people thought they were healthy or better for them. However, 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.”

When asked³ about meat alternative products, more than 1 in 3 adults (36%) say they eat vegan or vegetarian versions of burgers, sausages, chicken or fish. Of those who eat them, 32% say they consume them once a week or more frequently, with 8% consuming them daily.

The top three meat alternative products are mince (41%), chicken (34%) and burgers (31%). The main reasons for consumers purchasing them are that they are perceived to be healthy or better for you (33%), for taste (26%) and environmental impact (12%).

Dr Conlon continues: “There are some positives to these products – some are lower in fat and saturated fat than their meat equivalents, while others are a source of fibre. But if people are considering these as a protein replacement, I would encourage them to check the label.

“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.

“There are lots of protein sources that you can choose from, including meat, poultry, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, tofu and chickpeas. Our website has lots of meat-free recipes that you can try.” she says.

Consumer tips on vegetarian meat alternative products

  • Most meat alternative products should not be used frequently as an alternative to meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses and nuts.
  • Meat alternative products can fit into a healthy diet but are still processed/highly processed foods and so consumption should be limited accordingly.
  • Meat alternatives range in nutritional quality so consumers are advised to read labels and look for products containing good sources of protein and micronutrients when possible.
  • Be aware that plant-based meat alternatives generally contain more carbohydrates than meat and less calories and so may call for adjustments when using these products to directly replace meat due to their differing nutritional profile.
  • Include a variety of sources of protein in your diet e.g. meat, eggs, fish, legumes, nuts, and tofu.

The full report ¹ can be downloaded from the safefood website

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