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Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Are They a Healthy Choice?

05 September 2023
Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Are They a Healthy Choice?

In the last few years, there has been a surge in the popularity and availability of plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs). In particular, they have become a popular option for people who want to reduce their meat intake, or are transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet. PBMAs are frequently marketed as healthier than conventional meat products, and better for the environment. But what are PBMAs, and how healthy are they?


PBMAs refers to products made from plant proteins that contain added flavourings, colourants, fats or other binding agents (Andreani et al., 2023). Sometimes referred to as meat analogues, they offer a substitute for commercial meat-based products: common examples of PBMAs include burgers, sausages, mince and coated poultry. This is distinct from traditional meat alternatives that are primarily made from one ingredient, for example tofu, tempeh or jackfruit.

PBMAs are increasingly being manufactured to mimic the taste, texture, appearance and overall experience of eating meat products. They replicate the experience of cooking and eating traditional meat products, offering consumers a way to enjoy non-meat products in a format that is both familiar and convenient.

PBMAs are frequently marketed on the premise that they are a healthier choice and better for the environment, compared to meat alternatives and are not associated with the same risk factors for disease, such as colorectal cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Also they do not carry the same risk of food[1]borne illness, such as Salmonella or Campylobacter (Kalocsay et al., 2020). The main drivers for people purchasing PBMAs are: healthiness, taste, convenience, environmental benefits, appearance, attitudes towards PBMAs and social norms (Onwezen et al., 2021). Shoppers are most commonly aged under 35 years, female, college-educated and earn higher-income (Neuhofer & Lusk, 2022).

There is evidence of a possible halo effect surrounding PBMAs. That is, a tendency for consumers to overestimate the healthiness of PBMAs due to their marketing. Recent research has shown that the average consumer perceives PBMAs to be more healthy than they objectively are, and more healthy than traditional meat (Gonzales et al., 2023).


PBMAs are typically made from plant proteins such as soy, wheat, pea or rice, or from mycoprotein, a protein derived from fungi. Fats (for example, canola oil, coconut oil or sunflower oil) are added, along with starches, colourings, binders, flavourings, or other plant derivatives. Vitamins and minerals naturally found in meat may also be added to PBMAs (for example, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron). Depending on the ingredient and product type, different methods are used to manufacture PBMAs.

Fractionation is used to extract protein from crops such as soybeans and peas. The most common manufacturing method, however, is extrusion. In this, the raw proteins are hydrated and exposed to a series of thermal and mechanical pressures to create a meat-like structure. Developments in manufacturing processes and optimisation of ingredients has made it possible to develop PBMAs that more closely mimic the characteristics of traditional meat products. However, this can come at the expense of adding more ingredients and further processing to recreate the real meat experience (Andreani et al., 2023).

Several studies have highlighted that the majority of PBMAs available for sale in our supermarkets meet the criteria for ‘ultra-processed’, according to the NOVA classification system. In a recent analysis of PBMAs available at Australian supermarkets, 84% of all PBMAs were classified as ‘ultra-processed’, meaning that they are ‘formulated mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents’ (Monteiro et al., 2019).

This may be off-putting for some consumers. However, it is worth noting that PBMAs typically do not share the same characteristics as most ultra-high processed foods (for example, products high in fat, sugar, salt, low in fibre and highly energy[1]dense). Although most PBMAs are ultra[1]processed, so too are the traditional meat products that they replace, such as burgers, sausages, bacon and crumbed poultry (Kalocsay et al., 2020).


A recent report evaluated the nutritional profile of PBMAs available in Australian and New Zealand supermarkets, and compared them with traditional meat products. According to this report, PBMAs had on average comparable or less energy and sodium compared to meat alternatives. PBMAs also had comparable or higher protein and lower fat and saturated fat per 100g. Additionally, PBMAs had higher fibre and higher Health Star Rating (Kalocsay et al., 2020).

Although PBMAs were, on average, nutritionally superior to meat products, this varied across product category, and not all PBMAs rated highly when compared to meat products. For example, mean sodium levels were comparatively lower in the plant-based bacon but higher in the plant-based mince, compared to meat alternatives. See Table 1.

These findings are broadly consistent with another recent analysis of PBMAs available in Australian supermarkets. The researchers also reported that, compared to meat products, PBMAs contained more total sugar. Furthermore, only 12% of the PBMAs were fortified with key micronutrients found in meat; specifically, vitamin B12, zinc and iron (Melville et al., 2023).

With ongoing research and modifications in the PBMA market, there is scope to reformulate PBMAs to reduce the amount of sodium and sugar and increase the addition of key micronutrients. For example, the emerging use of novel plant ingredients such as lupins, fungi and algae offers alternatives to conventional ingredients that may currently present health concerns (Kalocsay et al., 2020).

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A new review has found that swapping animal meat with PBMAs in the short-term can significantly lower total cholesterol levels, which suggests possible heart health benefits of meat substitutes (Gibbs & Leung, 2023). However, further research is needed to understand the long-term health impacts of substituting meat products for PBMAs. This would need to consider how PBMAs compare nutritionally, and the long-term impact of consuming ultra-processed foods (Kalocsay et al., 2020).


PBMAs are sometimes marketed as more environmentally friendly than traditional meat products, and this is a common driver for consumers choosing to buy PBMAs. The manufacture of conventional meat products places many pressures on the physical environment due to crop growth, animal husbandry, and water use amongst others. As with meat products, PBMAs are highly processed, therefore will always have some degree of environmental impact; however, this impact is substantially lower than meat production. Comparisons of environmental impact of PBMAs is still evolving, but there is a clear consensus that PBMAs are more environmentally sustainable than meat across a range of outcomes (Andreani et al., 2023; Bryant, 2022; The Good Food Institute, Inc, 2019). One report states that, compared to traditional meat, the manufacture of PBMAs uses 47-99% less land; emits 30-90% less greenhouse gases; uses 72-99% less water; and causes 51-91% less aquatic nutrient production (which means healthier and more diverse waterways) (The Good Food Institute, Inc, 2019).


The PBMA market is a developing and interesting space. It offers consumers the ability to enjoy a variety of products that are convenient and familiar to them, without the adverse health and environmental impacts of eating meat. PBMAs are, on average, nutritionally equivalent or superior to traditional meat products, but their overall healthiness may not meet the expectations created by marketing claims. The majority of PBMAs are considered ultra-processed, which raises questions about how well they fit into a healthy diet, particularly in the long-term.

Below are some recommendations to help you get the most out of adding PBMAs to your diet: Enjoy PBMAs in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

  • PBMAs provide a convenient and familiar option for people who want to reduce their meat intake or try something different. They can be a useful interim step for people transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
  • PBMAs are not essential for people on a vegetarian or vegan diet. It is possible to meet your nutritional needs through a healthy, balanced diet that contains whole foods such as legumes, grains, vegetables and mushrooms.
  • Try making your own vegetarian burgers from beans, grains and vegetables – see the NZ Vegetarian Society website for recipe inspiration.


There are a wide variety of PBMAs in New Zealand, with differing ingredients, processing and nutritional profiles. Shop around to find the right one for you. As a guide, look for products:

  • containing fewer, and more recognisable, ingredients
  • with a Health Star Rating of 3.5 or higher
  • with low to moderate sodium (≤ 400mg per 100g)
  • that are a good source of fibre (≥ 4g/100g)
  • fortified with zinc, vitamin B12 and iron.
  • Look for products with the ‘Vegetarian Society Approved’ or ‘Vegan Certified’ trademark. When you see these symbols, you can be confident that the product is suitable for vegans or vegetarians. See the NZ Vegetarian Society website for more information.


  • Nutritionally, PBMAs are not a direct substitution for meat. Most PBMAs do not provide the essential nutrients of vitamin B12, zinc and iron that are most often consumed in meat, fish or dairy products.
  • If you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet or have concerns about meeting your nutritional requirements:
  • eat a varied diet to improve your nutrient intake and bioavailability
  • see a nutritionist or dietitian for advice
  • look for products fortified with vitamin B12, zinc and iron.

By Catherine Lofthouse

Catherine Lofthouse is a passionate plant-based foodie who loves to explore all things related to veg~n living. She is also a registered dietitian.

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