What’s Actually In Meat-Free Foods – And Are They Healthy?

Veganism and meat substitutes are becoming more popular but a new report warns some foods are highly processed.

There are more meat substitute products on the market than ever before, with a whole host of new releases hitting supermarkets for Veganuary.

But the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that advises policy-makers, has warned consumers may be unaware of the potential health implications of eating these products. It said some meat substitutes contain high levels of salt for flavouring.

“The long-term health effects of consuming meat alternatives have not been established and it is not yet known how people will incorporate these foods into their diets,” the council warns in a new report. “These products are usually highly processed and the use of novel ingredients and new production processes might carry health risks that are hard to predict.”

Only 4% of the UK population are vegan or vegetarian, the report suggests, but the meat-free market is growing – largely due to meat-eaters trying to cut down, it said. An estimated 14% of people in Britain now identify as flexitarian – meat-eaters reducing their meat consumption – and 70% of people who buy plant-based meat alternatives are meat-eaters.

But the researchers are concerned that using words like “clean” and “green” on these products might mean people “overlook the health implications” of them.

Ultra-processed foods have been found to increase a person’s risk of dying early, a study concluded in 2019. This could be because they often contain additives and ingredients such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, where the oil has been modified to make it more suitable.

So, what’s inside these meat-free products we’re suddenly eating – from the Greggs’ vegan steak bake, to the Burger King plant-based patty? And how do we make healthy meat-free choices?

Heather Russell, a dietitian at The Vegan Society, tells HuffPost UK the majority of meat substitutes are made from soya, tofu, mycoprotein (Quorn) and seitan (made from wheat flour).

Just like non-vegan food, some vegan options should only be reserved as a treat, she says. But going vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian doesn’t have to be bad for health, insists Russell.

“Use food labels to keep an eye on added fat and salt and choose plenty of healthy sources of protein like canned beans and chickpeas in water, red split lentils, pure peanut butter, unsalted nuts, pumpkin seeds, the dry variety of soya mince, and plain tofu, which can be seasoned using spices,” she says.

“Everyone can help the environment by limiting their intakes of highly-processed foods, but an off-the-shelf vegan diet has the lowest environmental impact and it’s the clear winner from an ethical perspective.”

If you’re following a plant-based diet this month, why not try cooking some new dishes at home? These Veganuary recipes have just five ingredients each, meaning you won’t spend hours in the kitchen.