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The idea of eating less meat is a worthy one, but swapping it out for plant-based alternatives isn’t as straightforward — or healthy — as it may seem.

Fake meat is having a moment — it’s in all the major supermarkets, practically every fast-food chain has a fake-meat burger option and even fine-dining restaurants are getting on board. The rise of fake meat follows more Australians embracing plant-based diets. While it used to be a niche part of society, in the past few years the trend has gone mainstream. According to research by Roy Morgan, in 2018, 2.5 million Australians — 12 per cent of the population — followed a vegetarian diet, up from 1.7 million people in 2012.

But we’re still a meat-obsessed country — more than 90 per cent of Aussie households are still eating red meat and Australia remains one of the world’s largest per-capita consumers of beef, with the average Aussie consuming around 27kg of beef a year. It seems, though, that even if we’re not eating meat, a lot of us would still like it to taste like meat. The sales of meat-free burger products, which have increased by 289 per cent in the past decade, reflect this. And it’s estimated the Australian plant-based food industry will be worth $3 billion by 2030.

For many consumers, fake meat appears to be a sustainable answer to a meat-obsessed food culture that still offers interesting flavours and textures beyond beans and veg. But are vegan hot dogs, burgers and nuggets really healthy, or is fake meat, as TV chef Rachel Khoo puts it, “just another highly processed food with better marketing”?

The processed-food paradox

Aussie chef Guy Turland is also a sceptic. His main concern is that consumers don’t know exactly what they’re eating. “We are pushed and sold what they want us to know, but not told the whole story on how these products are made, if they’re really healthy for us and what the long-term effects are,” he says.

The nutritional labels on fake-meat products often sound more like science experiments than a list of ingredients. A Beyond Meat burger patty, for example, has 18 ingredients, including methylcellulose and potassium chloride, while an Impossible Burger patty has 17 ingredients, including leghemoglobin and konjac gum.

The other big criticism is that fake meat can contain as much if not more salt than meat itself. Recent research from The Heart Foundation found that a serve of fake meat often contains 20 to 35 per cent of your maximum recommended daily salt intake (which is 5g salt, or 2000mg of sodium), and sometimes even half of your RDI. The plant-based Beyond Simply Grill’d burger, for example, contains 1100mg of sodium, only 40mg less than the beef-patty equivalent.

There are low-salt options out there, like the mushroom-based fake meat from local brand Fable Food Co, with only 173mg of sodium per 125g serve. At the moment it’s only available in restaurants, like Bungalow 8 in Sydney, Third Wave Cafe in Melbourne and even in London at Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfectionists’ Café, but there are plans for retail products. Fable’s slow-cooked-style products are made with shiitake mushrooms and only a handful of other ingredients.

Fable founder Michael Fox is a vegan, but he says the faux-meat industry isn’t aiming for diners already ordering the mushroom patty on their burger. “We’re targeting that flexitarian customer who still loves the taste and texture of meat, but wants to reduce their meat consumption,” he says. “It all ties in with our objective of having a minimally processed, healthy, wholefood base.”

The only sting is that Fable’s products have more saturated fat than some cuts of red meat, thanks to its dose of coconut oil. Turns out it’s hard to have your fake meat and eat it, too.

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Tips for plant-lovers

“With all these [fake-meat] products, people automatically think they’re healthy because they’re plant-based, but they’re still a convenience food,” explains dietitian Melissa Meier. “The lure is that it takes out the guesswork and time in the kitchen, it’s easier to throw a plant-based patty on a burger bun than it is to soak legumes overnight. People think they’re eating a healthy meal but they may not be — there’s so much rubbish in supermarkets that say plant-based.”

When it comes to how much fake meat is too much, balance is key. “It comes down to the idea that as long as you’re mainly eating wholefoods, you’ll be OK,” Meier says. “Of course it’s OK to have things like sausages or vegan meat every now and then. All foods can fit into a healthy diet — as long as the majority of it is healthy, wholefoods.”

While Meier says there’s no set rule as to how many ingredients on the label are too many, common sense should prevail. “Generally I think a handful of ingredients is fine, but if it becomes extensive and contains lots of words or numbers you don’t recognise, it’s probably not healthy,” she tips. The Heart Foundation recommends that products with less than 120mg of sodium per 100g are best, and options with less than 400mg of sodium per 100g are still good choices.

Meier believes it’s unhelpful to think of red meat as a ‘bad food’ that should be eliminated.

“Plant-based is such a buzzword, but it doesn’t have to mean plant-only,” she says. “Meat is a really good source of high-quality protein, zinc and vitamin B12. A healthy way to eat is mostly plants with a little meat and animal products if you wish. A vegan diet isn’t problematic either, as long as it’s a well-balanced eating plan that involves legumes, wholegrains, fruit and vegetables. But it takes work.”

Turland adds that choosing ethical meat and having it as a treat is another viable option: “I think simple, fresh veggies and ethically sourced meat is always a better option than anything made in a lab by scientists.”

Meir adds: “If the ingredients list contains lots of words you don’t recognise, it’s probably not healthy.”

Meat vs. fake meat: which is healthier?

Plant-based ‘meat’ can contain wholefoods but also refined ingredients, plus oil and salt.

Here’s how they compare…

Coles Beef Sausages (100g)

  • 772 kj
  • 14.5g protein
  • 5.7g saturated fat
  • 503mg sodium

Lean fillet steak (100g)

  • 570kJ
  • 22g protein
  • 2g saturated fat
  • 60mg sodium

Beyond Meat patties (100g)

  • 926kJ
  • 18g protein
  • 5g saturated fat
  • 345mg sodium

Fable Food Co fake meat (100g)

  • 1063kJ
  • 9g protein
  • 12.9g saturated fat
  • 138mg sodium

What happens to your body when you go vegan?

From your tastebuds to your waistline, here’s what to celebrate and what to watch out for as your body adapts to its new diet…

First few weeks

You may feel your energy levels spike as you cut out meat, which can be difficult for your body to digest. Your bathroom habits will change as you introduce more vegetables — which means more fibre. Your taste buds may also transform as they adjust to your new eating regimen.

At six months

You’ll probably lose weight, because there are less kilojoules in plant-based proteins. Chances are your skin will clear up, too, as dairy consumption has been linked to breakouts. On the health front, your risk of heart disease and stroke should drop as you cut out cholesterol from red meat. By cutting the sugar and salt found in processed foods, you’ll also lowering your risk of diabetes.

After six months

The health benefits of going vegan are the same, but you may also suffer some deficiencies. You may not get enough iron, vitamin D, zinc, B12 and/or calcium, so it’s a good idea to see a dietitian to set up a balanced eating plan or take supplements to ensure you don’t become deficient.

the ingredients to look out for
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