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Choosing vegetarian meat substitutes


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

If you buy vegetarian meat substitutes, there are few things you need check

  • they are a good source of protein
  • they are low in salt, fat and sugar

What are vegetarian meat substitute products?

Vegetarian meat substitutes are products that look or taste like meat such as 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’. They are vegetarian and often vegan friendly too.

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.

How to choose the best vegetarian meat substitutes?

If you are going to eat them, read the label and look for products that are lower in fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. 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

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

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 individuals 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.

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

Need some vegetarian recipe inspiration?


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