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Are plant-based meat products really better for you?

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Plant-based meat is becoming ever-more popular in Australia, but new research has cast some doubt on the overall health benefits.

Findings from the George Institute for Global Health have shown that while plant-based meat products are generally healthier than processed meat equivalents, they can also be higher in sugar and often lack important nutrients.

Lead author Maria Shahid said that despite the growing popularity of plant-based meat substitutes, often based on health reasons, there is very little evidence of the actual health impact of these products.

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"Both plant-based and processed meats mostly fall into the ultra-processed category, so this raises concerns about their role in a healthy diet," she said.

"While we found plant-based meat products were generally healthier than their processed meat equivalents, healthier alternatives would still be lean unprocessed meats and legumes, beans and falafel."

Demand for plant-based meat analogues is growing, with sales in Australia estimated to reach almost $3 billion by 2030.

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The researchers compared burgers, meatballs, mince, sausages, bacon, coated poultry, plain poultry, and meat with pastry products to their plant-based equivalents.

While the protein content was similar in both categories, plant-based meat analogues on average had significantly less saturated fat and sodium, as well as more fibre than meat products.

But of the 132 plant-based meat analogues analysed, only 12 percent were fortified with key micronutrients essential for health that are found in meat — iron, vitamin B12 and zinc.

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George Institute dietitian Dr Daisy Coyle said that in Australia, processed meats have been classified as discretionary foods in the national dietary guidelines and have been linked to various types of cancer, so consumers are advised to limit these meats as part of a healthy diet.

"But it isn't as simple as a straight swap — solely relying on meat alternatives as a direct replacement for meat could lead to iron, zinc and B12 deficiencies over time if you are not boosting your intake of these essential nutrients from other sources or taking supplements," she said.

"To guard against this, make sure you are consuming other animal proteins such as eggs, cheese, milk, yoghurt and/or rich plant-based sources of iron including dark leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, as well as tofu, nuts and seeds, and beans and legumes."

Coyle said until the health impacts of plant-based meat products were better understood, they were best eaten in moderation along with other plant-based proteins such as bean patties, falafel and tofu, or unprocessed lean meats and seafood.

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