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That vegan burger may not be as healthy as you think it is

Email Vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes could pose health risks, researchers warn By Emilia Terzon

Posted September 11, 2019 02:54:02

A plant-based burger with fries. Photo: The research found some meat alternatives were highly processed and full of sodium. (Supplied: Lord of the Fries) Related Story: It looks like meat and tastes like meat — and it's got the cattle industry worried Related Story: There's a growing vegan trend in Australia, but we're still some of the world's biggest meatheads Map: Australia

The amount of pork-free bacon, tofu-based sausages and other so-called "fake meats" on Australian supermarket shelves is booming, but new research has found eating these foods could pose significant health risks.

Key points:

  • The amount of meat substitutes on Australian shelves has almost tripled in 10 years
  • Researchers found many of the products had high levels of fat, salt and sugar
  • Meat-free bacon had the highest sodium levels, followed by falafels

Senior public health nutritionist Clare Farrand led a study by the George Institute for Global Health in Melbourne that looked at many processed meat-free alternatives such as pork-free bacon, falafels, tofu-based sausages and vegetarian burger patties.

Plant-based fake meat has become a lucrative market in recent years, with one vegan burger raising $US240 million when it debuted to the US market in May.

The researchers found the number of meat substitute products on Australian supermarket shelves almost tripled in the past decade.

"We know that Australians are leaning towards eating more of a plant based diet. This is ultimately a good thing," Ms Farrand said.

"However, these are still packaged, processed foods."

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The study found some popular items sold in Australia supermarkets are laden with added salt, with 100 grams of meat-free bacon containing about 2g of salt — a third of a day's recommended intake.

"Our research found that meat-free bacon has the highest average salt content followed surprisingly by falafels and meat-free sausages," Ms Farrand said.

One vegan pie brand contained half the daily recommended salt intake.

The Heart Foundation is launching the study in conjunction with VicHealth on Wednesday.

The foundation's chief executive Kellie-Ann Jolly said eating too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, which now affects more than six million Australians.

Plant-based options 'appear healthier' but often aren't

Ms Farrand said the study's results were particularly problematic because often meat-free foods come with marketing about them being plant-based, gluten-free or vegan.

"Many of these products do appear to be healthier largely because of the marketing around the products themselves," she said.

"We know when something says plant-based or low in something, we have the image in our heads that it's healthier for it because it's made from plants.

"But what we don't realise, and what it doesn't say on the front of the pack, is that it does contain salt, fat and sugar.

"Manufacturers are adding salt to the products. Salt is added to products for many reasons but one of the main reasons is taste."

A table of healthy food, including fruit, vegetables and healthy snacks. Photo: Wholefoods were a healthier option than meat substitutes, Ms Farrand said. (ABC News: Clare Rawlinson)

However, the study found not all types of these products were always salty, with some brands of falafels having much lower salt contents.

"There are some products which contain a lot less salt than others, so there are healthier options out there."

Excess red meat is linked to a higher risk of some cancers as well as heart disease.

The study did not compare meat-free alternatives with their meat counterparts, such as meat-free bacon with actual rashers.

"What we really wanted to identify was just to see how salty these products are in themselves," Ms Farrand said.

She said the study showed vegetarian lifestyles were not necessarily healthier if they relied on processed foods.

"When you're eating a plant-based diet that's full of wholefoods, like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, this is obviously healthier," she said.

"We really need to be looking at the information panels on the back of the pack to really understand what's in these processed foods."

Topics: food-and-cooking, lifestyle-and-leisure, health, diseases-and-disorders, heart-disease, vegetarian, medical-research, academic-research, australia, melbourne-3000

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