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Is Mock Meat Healthier Than Real Meat?

Real meat versus plant based meat

With the rise in veganism and people turning to plant-based eating, the market for mock meat has been booming.

When I first went vegan, almost a decade ago now, you would be hard up finding a decent block of tofu in major supermarkets in Australia.

Now in 2021, there is a whole section dedicated to plant based meat alternatives. Plant based beef-style burgers, “chicken” nuggets, sausages, pepperoni, bacon and ham are all readily accessible in Coles & Woolworths. 

Going out to eat as a vegan is also a lot easier these days. With everyone from major food chains like Dominos, Nandos, and Hungry Jacks to fine dining restaurants offering mock meat options. 

But are these faux meat products any better for your health than the real thing?

Reducing Meat Consumption & The Junk Food Vegan

Wanting to reduce your meat consumption is a worthy cause and something most Australian’s should consider. 

However, if you are replacing your meat consumption with highly-processed mock meats, you may actually be worse off.

Now for the sake of this article, we are only going to be considering the health aspects of plant based versus real meat options. Obviously, people choose foods for a multitude of reasons including ethics, environmental sustainability and general preference which are all valid but not within the scope of this piece. 

Vegan burgers versus real beef burgers

Studies have shown that adopting a plant-based or vegan diet can reduce your risk of developing many types of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

But the majority of this data is based on the eating habits of vegans that do not reflect current dietary behaviours.

Because of the lack of faux-meats that were easily accessible prior to the boom in the market, vegans were predominantly relying on foods such as tofu, tempeh, and legumes to get their protein. These are the types of foods that have been shown to contribute to positive health outcomes. 

So I anticipate that as we see vegan dietary habits start to lean more towards processed mock meats instead, that the positive health outcomes of going vegan will become less prominent. 

Comparing Meat Products to Their Mock Meat Alternatives 

Mock meat versus real meat nutrition comparison

Often processed mock meats are actually quite similar in their fat and calorie content to the real meat versions. 

Oils have to be added to mock meats to give them a similar texture to real meat. So even though the base ingredient of soy or pea protein is typically low in fat, the addition of oils brings the fat content of the product right up to match or sometimes exceed the real meat version. 

In addition, often this oil is coconut oil which means that the saturated fat content of some mock meats may actually be just as high as the real thing.

Most plant-based oils are predominantly unsaturated fat but that isn’t true for coconut and palm oil which are used often in these products. 

For example, in the image above, the Naturli vegan mince contains 8.1g of saturated fat in comparison to the regular beef mince which contains 4.7g per 100g. This is interesting considering that per 100g, their total fat content is very similar (~10g). 

The Naturli mince is produced with coconut oil and it is listed as the third-largest ingredient in the product. Unfortunately, many mock meat products have this same issue.

Lean Meat Options 

Real meat options tend to get a one up on the mock meats because there are often lean versions of these products.

For the sake of the comparison all the meats in the above image are regular fat, untrimmed versions of those meats as that is what mock meats are often trying to replicate. 

No one has tried to make a mock plain chicken breast for a reason. 

Nonetheless, lean meat options such as heart healthy extra lean mince, short cut bacon, reduced fat sausages and burger patties are available and are much lower in calories, total fat and saturated fat.

So if you are choosing the mock-meat option over the extra lean real meat options, you are probably doing yourself a disservice. At least from a health and weight management perspective. 

Micronutrients in Mock Meat

Another reason you may want to choose the actual meat versions has to do with the micronutrient content of meat versus mock-meats.

Most mock meats are a combination of highly processed, not super nutritious ingredients. Typically they are just texturised pea or soy protein, oils, gums and thickeners and flavours. 

Real meat on the other hand can be a great source of iron (red meat), B vitamins including B12 and omega-3 (oily fish).

Unless a mock meat product is specifically fortified, you are not getting the vitamins and minerals you would by consuming the real meat version. 

However, there are companies that do strategically fortify their products with iron, B-vitamins, zinc and/or omega-3. An example would be the Sanitarium Vegie delights range which are all iron, B12 and zinc fortified. 

Cancer Risk of Red & Processed Meats 

Now swinging in the other direction, if your consumption of red and processed meat is generally very high, it might be worth introducing some plant-based options into your diet, even if it is a faux-meat.

The consumption of red and processed meats have been associated with an increase in cancer risk. 

Vegan versus real meat beef burger

Red meats include:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Kangaroo

And processed meats include food such as:

  • Sausages
  • Bacon
  • Salami
  • Ham
  • Devon
  • Chorizo

In these studies, the risk generally increases with the amount of meat consumed. 

“An analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.”

World Health Organisation

The cancer risk related to the consumption of red meat is more difficult to estimate because the evidence that red meat causes cancer is not as strong. 

“If the association of red meat and colorectal cancer were proven to be causal, data from the same studies suggest that the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17% for every 100-gram portion of red meat eaten daily.”

World Health Organisation

Red & Processed Meat Recommendations

The Cancer Council recommends that meat-eaters, 

  1. Eat no more than 1 serve of lean red meat per day or 2 serves 3-4 times per week. A serve of red meat is equal to 90-100g raw or 65g cooked.
  2. Cut out processed meats altogether or keep them to an absolute minimum. Processed meats include bacon, ham, devon, frankfurts, chorizo, cabanossi and kransky.

If your intake is above recommendations, it might be worth swapping a couple of serves to a mock-meat alternative. Particularly in regards to processed meats. 

We all know that we are not eating pepperoni for the sake of our health, so a vegan version may be a good alternative if it is something you are eating frequently and don’t want to cut out of your diet. 

But the better option is always going to be swapping the meat for a nutritious plant based alternative such as tofu and legumes.

Not All Mock Meats Are Created Equal 

When you think of mock meats, you likely think of the basic vegan burgers, sausages and bacon. Foods like this, even the real meat versions, are not made to be the pinnacle of health. 

They are comfort, sometimes foods. Whether they are made from meat or from plants. 

However, mock-meats, like real meats, have a spectrum from “sometimes foods” to “include in your diet regularly foods”.  

There are actually mock-meats that I do recommend and can be consumed on a regular basis. These include:

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)

First up is textured vegetable protein or TVP. This is a granulated meat substitute made from soy flour. Although you can find varieties made from pea or sunflower protein as well. 

TVP is very low in fat, contains no cholesterol and is a great source of protein and fibre. In addition, traditional TVP can also be a good source of iron.

Most people use TVP as a substitute for mince. It is typically hydrated and seasoned prior to being used in a dish.

Seitan Mock Meat

Plant Asia Roast Chicken

Seitan is a meat substitute made from gluten flour. It has a chewy texture and absorbs whatever flavours you cook it in.

But here is the catch with store-bought seitan. Some are quite lean sources of protein, whilst others have a high fat content. It all comes down to the additional ingredients added to the gluten flour and water. 

If you can find a seitan that is <200 calories & >20g of protein per 100g, I would classify that as a reasonable option. 

In Australia, most of the Plant Asia range would meet these recommendations. 

Although, you do have to be mindful that most seitan based meat substitutes will not pack quite the same micronutrient punch as real meat. So try to pair it with other nutrient dense foods such as legumes and dark green vegetables. 

Pea Protein Mock Meat 

Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken

One specific product comes to mind in this category. A product from New Zealand called Sunfed Chicken-Free chicken. 

This is actually one of my favourite mock meat options available in Australia at the moment. 

It has a very small ingredients list of just pea protein, water, extra virgin olive oil, yeast and pumpkin. 

The Sunfed chicken also provides a significant amount of iron and zinc in conjunction with being very high in protein.  

From a nutritional perspective, it is really difficult to beat the traditional sources of plant based protein. Soy foods and legumes will likely always reign supreme, but some of these mock-meats could be a great way to nutritiously replace some of your meat consumption.  

Summary

In general, most mock-meats are designed to mimic the tastier, less health conscious meats like juicy beef burgers and bacon, typically making them high in fat and salt. 

Therefore, these processed meat substitutes are often not going to be a good swap for improved health or weight management. 

Reducing meat consumption is likely going to be beneficial for a lot of people. In Australia, we tend to over-consume animal products and under-consume plant foods. But if we are wanting to improve our health, swapping to mock meat options is likely not the best way to go about it.

Instead, I would suggest going for the more old-school vegan proteins such as tofu, tempeh and legumes or being very particular with the type of mock-meat you are choosing.

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