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Food Safety Focus (215th Issue, June 2024) – Article 2

Plant-Based Meat – What are they and How do they Compare with Meat?

Reported by Arthur YAU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Communication Section, Centre for Food Safety

In the quest for sustainable eating habits, plant-based meat (PBM) has emerged as a popular alternative to traditional animal meat. Known also as meat substitutes or analogs, PBM products are manufactured to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of meat using plant-derived ingredients.

What is PBM ?

Historically, Asian cuisines have utilised soy products to create vegetarian dishes akin to meat flavours. Examples include vegetarian chicken made from bean curd sheets and vegetarian lo mei which is produced from wheat gluten. Modern PBMs often comprise of proteins from soy, wheat, peas and mushrooms, which provide the necessary texture and structure resembling meat. To enhance the sensory experience, ingredients like coconut oil are added for juiciness, while binders like methylcellulose ensure cohesion. Various seasonings are also added to enrich the flavour profile, mimicking the sensory experience of consuming traditional meat.

Figure 2: Production of PBM

Nutritional Composition and Comparison with Regular Meat

While PBMs are noted for their environmental sustainability over meat, it is crucially important to examine their nutritional profile compared with that of conventional meat. PBMs’ low cholesterol levels and often higher dietary fibre content are two of their main benefits. However, unlike meat, which is a complete protein source containing all essential amino acids, PBMs often require careful combination with other proteins or the consumer has to take supplements to achieve a similar nutritional intake.

A study by researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2023 revealed that over 270 prepackaged PBM products from 27 brands were available locally, with a significant percentage containing medium to high levels of fat, salt and sugar based on the information on the nutrition labels. These findings suggest that while PBMs can mimic the texture and taste of meat, they can also inherit some of the unhealthy attributes of processed foods. The World Health Organization - Regional Office for Europe (WHO-Europe) has also highlighted that plant-based meals, especially those prepared outside the home, can contain a lot of salt. This indicates a gap in knowledge regarding the full nutritional composition of PBMs and how they contribute to a balanced diet as a whole.

The Importance of a Balanced Diet in Plant-Based Eating

A plant-based diet does not always equate to better health unless it is well-planned and balanced. PBMs may be deficient in some nutrients, such as vitamins B₁₂ and D, calcium, iron and certain essential amino acids, which highlights the need for careful dietary planning. The WHO-Europe recommends opting for minimally processed plant foods to maximise health benefits. Consumers choosing PBMs should therefore be vigilant about the products’ nutritional content, which can vary widely between brands and types. It is always a good idea to read nutrition labels on prepackaged food and consider supplementing the diet with fortified foods or diverse plant sources to ensure the intake of all essential nutrients. Populations who have special nutrition needs and opt for vegetarian diets, including children, adolescents, pregnant women, lactating mothers, elderly persons and people with chronic diseases, should consult medical practitioners and dietitians in order to meet their special nutritional needs. Also, allergens that are usually not present in meat may be present in PBM. People with food allergy should also look out for ingredients that they are allergic to, for example, soya, cereals grains (gluten) and nuts.

In conclusion, while plant-based meats offer a viable alternative for those seeking to reduce their meat consumption for ethical or environmental reasons, they should not be viewed as a direct nutritional substitute for animal meats. As an alternative, they ought to be incorporated into a diet consisting of a range of unprocessed plant foods and supplements may be needed to avoid any nutrient deficit. By making informed decisions and planning a diet that fulfills all nutritional requirements, individuals can enjoy the health benefits of a plant-based diet without compromising on nutritional quality.