More Australians than ever before are avoiding meat in their diets and choosing meat alternatives for health and ethical reasons.
For the 2.5 million Australians who don’t eat meat, substitute meat (or meat alternatives) such as vegetarian sausages, not-bacon and falafels are becoming increasingly popular.
While eating plant-based food is great for your health, a new study has revealed that processed meat-free meals often aren’t as healthy as they appear.
Meat-free isn’t always healthier
Sian Armstrong, dietitian with the Heart Foundation, says meat-free meals are often marketed as healthy, but a close look at the ingredients list reveals they sometimes contain very high levels of salt, or sodium.
Australian researchers tested more than 560 meat alternatives sold in supermarkets over 10 years. They found that products such as meat-free burgers, sausages and bacon can have very high amounts of salt, which is one of the main causes of high blood pressure.
Meat-free products should be “sometimes foods” rather than a regular part of your diet, Armstrong says.
“We found that meat alternatives can often appear a lot healthier than they actually are.
“They often have a bit of a health halo, but in reality a lot of them are really highly processed and can contain a lot of salt.”
The number of meat substitutes has tripled in supermarkets in less than a decade, Armstrong says.
“Some of these products can be marketed as very healthy because they're plant-based – and plant-based eating is generally a very healthy way to eat – but some of these are highly processed.
“They might seem really healthy, but the only way to know is to check the product label. In particular, people should check for salt, and this can be quite confusing because salt is listed as sodium on a product’s nutrition information panels.”
Some meat alternatives are saltier than others
The researchers found there was a large range in the amount of salt in a lot of meat-free products. For instance, some brands of falafel were ten times saltier than other brands, showing that they could be produced with less salt.
“We found meat-free bacon had the highest amounts of salt, on average, and then it was falafels and meat-free sausages as the next saltiest,” Armstrong says.
“The saltiest product overall was a vegan pie that had half a day's worth of salt in just one pie.”
Salt is added as an easy, cheap way to enhance flavour, as well as being a common preservative.
The huge range of salt levels in different meat-free foods shows us that it doesn’t always have to be high, Armstrong says.
The report by The George Institute for Global Health, VicHealth and the Heart Foundation found:
- The saltiest product per serving was a vegan pie, which contained 50% of an adult’s daily intake of salt.
- Of the products surveyed in 2019, the saltiest were not-bacon, falafels and meat-free sausages.
- One brand of falafel was ten times saltier than some others.
- Flavoured tofu contained around 12 times the amount of salt of plain tofu.
Salt is a key cause of high blood pressure
Eating too much salt is linked with high blood pressure, or hypertension, which is a leading risk factor for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. According to the Heart Foundation, more than six million Australians have high blood pressure, so it’s important to manage health and risk factors.
“We know that Australians are eating far too much salt,” Armstrong says.
“The maximum daily recommended amount of salt is 5g, which is about a teaspoon, but Australians are having up around 9g a day which is nearly double.”
- Age and family history
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High salt intake
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Making lifestyle changes will help lower blood pressure as well as reduce your risk of other health problems related to hypertension.
“A lot of people aren't really aware of the dangers of having too much salt in their diet,” says Armstrong.
“There's been a lot of publicity around other nutrients like sugars and fats, but people seem unaware of how much salt is in many supermarket foods, and that having too much salt can be damaging to their health.”
Choose unprocessed plant-based foods
“Eating less meat is a really good thing for most people. But you need to be aware of what you're replacing it with, and try to choose something that's healthy and nutritious,” Armstrong says.
Vegetarian and vegan foods that are healthy and low in salt include chick peas, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
“They are generally cheaper, really healthy and are a great alternative to eating meat,” Armstrong says.
You can find lots of vegetarian, plant-based recipes at Unpack The Salt.
Sian Armstrong is a dietitian with the Heart Foundation.