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Choosing vegetarian meat substitutes

Vegetarian products that look or taste like meat have become popular. But how healthy are they?

Choosing vegetarian meat substitutes 

Vegetarian meat substitutes are products that look or taste like meat.  This includes vegetarian (plant-based) burgers, steaks, mince, sausages, chicken and fish alternatives as well as vegetarian ready-meals like pastries and pies.

These products are often labelled ‘meat free’, ‘meat replacements’ or ‘meat alternatives’.   If you buy vegetarian meat substitutes, there are few things you need check.

Are they are a good source of protein?

An adult needs roughly 50 grams of protein over the course of a day so check the label for protein 

Are they are low in salt, fat and sugar?

Look at the nutrition label and check that: 

  • Fat is 3g or less per 100g 
  • Saturates are 1.5g or less per 100g 
  • Sugars are 5g or less per 100g 
  • Salt is 0.3g or less per 100g 

Don’t forget to look at the ingredients list.

Look for products that contain sources of protein like eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas as one or more of the ingredients. 

How do these products fit into a healthy diet? 

If you are buying these products as an alternative to meat/poultry/fish, it’s important that they are a sufficient source of protein.

The Food Pyramid recommends that people aged 5 years and older have 2 servings of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts per day.

All foods in this group are rich in protein and other nutrients such as iron. Processed meats and poultry such as sausages, bacon, cured meats, chicken nuggets and chicken goujons should not be eaten every day. This is also true for processed vegetarian meat alternatives. 

Processed vegetarian meat alternatives

A safefood survey of vegetarian meat substitutes found that 1 in 4 do not contain enough protein to be considered a source of protein. The products surveyed contained multiple ingredients. Most had lower protein than their meat equivalents and their salt levels were similar or higher.

However, most were lower in calories, fat and saturated fat.  The reality is that these are processed foods and a bit of a mixed bag.

Plant-based sources of protein 

Beans, peas, lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds are plant sources of protein. They are cheap, low in fat and a source of vitamins and minerals. They include: 

  • Lentils 
  • Chickpeas 
  • Black-eyed beans 
  • Baked beans 
  • Kidney beans 
  • Butter beans 
  • Tofu 
  • Nuts 
  • Nut butter 
  • Seeds 

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