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Raw deal: a closer look at meat substitutes

Jean Hailes Magazine | Medical & health articles 14 Dec 2020
Vegan food 1

Many claim to be healthy alternatives, but are meat substitute products actually good for you?

Scan the supermarket aisles and you might notice that meat-substitute products are on the rise. Your morning eggs can now be served with a side of ‘fakon’ (fake bacon). BBQs can easily turn meat-free with ‘plant-powered’ pork-style sausages and bean-based burgers. And that bolognese bubbling on the stove? It can be made with a meat-free ‘mince’.

Australian research from the George Institute reveals a 153% increase in the number of meat alternative products from 2010 to 2019. But with their increased popularity, it begs the question: are these meat substitutes a healthy choice? We asked Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella.

Fields

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To work out if a product is healthy or not, “you really have to inspect the label closely”, says Ms Villella.

Many meat substitutes are highly processed and not ‘real food’ at all. Look at the ingredient list – it might be quite long and filled with names you don’t recognise… artificial favours, additives and preservatives.

Ms Sandra Villella, Jean Hailes naturopath

These are all clues that the product does not pass the healthy test, says Ms Villella.

She recommends meat-free products of just 5-10 ingredients, that are all edible-sounding and familiar; “not names you need a chemistry degree to understand”.

Ms Villella says particular care needs to be taken with highly processed soy products.

Research has found that foods which use the whole soybean [eg, tofu and tempeh] are not associated with increased risk of breast cancer, but it does caution highly processed soy ingredients, such as soy protein isolates and supplements, which may behave differently.

Ms Sandra Villella, Jean Hailes naturopath
Tofu pumpkin recipe

Pay attention to protein

For those avoiding or cutting back on meat, Ms Villella says it’s important to pay attention to the protein products you’re eating so your nutritional needs are met.

“It’s not just about cutting out the animal foods,” she says.

Ms Villella says protein needs to come from a variety of sources, including legumes (eg, beans, lentils, chickpeas) nuts, seeds and grains.

When eaten together, for example legumes with seeds or grains, or nuts with grains, they complement each other and cover all the essential amino acids. Soy, hemp and quinoa are complete proteins by themselves.

Ms Sandra Villella, Jean Hailes naturopath
Legumes

Certain nutrients may be also be missed in a plant-based diet. “Iron, zinc and omega-3 levels can be lower, and so too with calcium if you’re also cutting out dairy,” she says.

Plant sources of iron and zinc include legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and tofu. Ms Villella suggests boosting your iron absorption of these foods by combining them with vitamin C-rich foods.

“Add lemon juice to salads, red capsicum to bean dishes, add sliced tomato to your wholegrain toast for breakfast.”

Ms Villella says omega-3s can be found in linseeds, chia, walnuts, hemp and seaweed. “And for calcium, include calcium-fortifed milk substitutes, unhulled tahini, nuts and seeds, and leafy green vegetables,” she says.

Cannellini zucchini hemp patties

DIY vegie burger

Ms Villella has created a cannellini bean patty recipe you can easily make yourself. This way you’ll not only know exactly what you’re eating, but cover some important nutritional bases as well – without needing a chemistry degree.

Get the recipe