Plant power - plant-based meat substitutes in the flexitarian age
Take home messages
- This study aimed to provide an overview of currently available plant-based meat substitutes available on Australian supermarket shelves, nutrition composition compared to animal products of comparable culinary use (burgers, sausages and mince) and changes in the make-up of the category from 2015 data.
- Product numbers increased 429% in four years.
- Plant-based options were generally lower in kilojoules, total and saturated fat, higher in carbohydrate, sugars, and dietary fibre compared with meat. Only 4% of products were low in sodium (58–1200mg/100 g).
- The plant protein trend has prompted innovation in meat substitutes, however wide nutrient ranges and higher sodium levels highlights the importance of nutrition guidelines in their development.
Demand for plant-based meat substitutes is growing globally for nutritional and environmental reasons, with Australia the third-fastest growing vegan market worldwide. Food choice is strongly linked with human health and the health of our environment, with excessive meat consumption often viewed as detrimental for both factors (Tillman and Clark, 2014). Globally, agriculture and food production is responsible for more than 25% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Tillman and Clark, 2014), with effects widely varied based on food-type. It is well-accepted that animal-based foods have a greater environmental impact than plant-based foods.
Suboptimal diets are responsible for more deaths than any other risk factors globally, including tobacco smoking. Suboptimal diets cause an estimated 11 million deaths and 255 million Disability Adjusted Life Years (GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators, 2019). Worldwide, intake of red meat surpasses what is considered optimal by 18% (led by Australasia, southern, and tropical Latin America) and consumption of processed meat is 90% greater than the optimal amount (led by North America, Asia Pacific, and western Europe) (GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators, 2019). However, compared to other dietary risks, high intake of red and processed meat ranked at the bottom end (at number 13, and 15, respectively) for death and disability. Conversely, high intakes of sodium, and low intakes of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds all featured in the top five risk factors (GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators, 2019).
The focus on plant-based proteins has created a significant opportunity within the food industry against a backdrop of health and environmental concern. Meat substitutes such as tofu and textured soy protein products have existed in the Western World since at least the 1960s (Elzerman et al. 2013; Mellentin, 2018), however it now appears that the target has moved from niche, to more mainstream, with products designed specifically to appeal to meat-eaters. Products resembling burger patties, mince, sausages, and chicken are displayed alongside meat in the chilled cabinets and many mimic meat products directly, with ‘bleeding’ burgers and other products designed to exhibit ‘meaty’ characteristics (Kaczorowskim, 2019).
In light of growing consumer interest in alternatives to traditional animal proteins, this study aimed to provide an overview of currently available plant-based meat substitutes available on Australian supermarket shelves, nutrition composition compared to animal products of comparable culinary use (burgers, sausages, and mince) and changes in the make-up of the category from 2015 data.
A recognised process was used to conduct an audit of plant-based meat substitutes (Grafenauer, 2018) in the four major supermarkets (Aldi, Coles, IGA, and Woolworths) of metropolitan Sydney in June 2019, replicating a process that was conducted on the same category in 2015. These supermarket chains represent more than 80% of the total Australian market share and were chosen in an effort to reflect choices available to the majority of Australian shoppers. Researchers used smartphones to capture all data on food packaging, including ingredients, nutrition information panel (NIP), health and nutrition claims, country of origin, Health Star Rating (HSR), and any additional logos and endorsements.
Following data collection:
- Products meeting the inclusion criteria were grouped into common categories based on their similarity to meat-based products and dishes, including plant-based burgers, sausages, mince, chicken, seafood, and an additional ‘other’ category with products that fell outside of these categories. Products excluded were vegetarian foods not specifically created to imitate meat products, such as tofu, tempeh, and falafel.
- Data from photographs was then transcribed into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (Redmond, WA, USA) for analysis.
- Eligibility for products to make nutrition content claims was assessed in line with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council Code of Practice for Whole Grain Ingredient Content Claims (The Code).
- Health Star Rating (HSR) was calculated for all products that did not display the system on-pack, using the HSR website calculator.
- The number and type of products collected were compared with data from a 2015 study that followed the same process, to assess changes in numbers and types of products.
- In order to compare meat substitutes to their equivalent animal-based versions, nutrition composition data was obtained for mince and sausages through FSANZ’s Australian Food Composition Database . Information for burgers did not exist within this database, so nutrition data was averaged from ten products found on Coles and Woolworths websites.
All data were checked for normality using the Shapiro–Wilk test (IBM SPSS®, version 25.0, IBM Corp., Chicago, IL, USA) and mean and standard deviation were presented in addition to median and range as only energy, protein, fat and dietary fibre were normally distributed. As expected, there were missing values for dietary fibre, sugars, sodium and iron as these would not be presented in the NIP unless specifically added to the products, therefore these nutrients were analysed separately.
Independent sample t-tests (IBM SPSS®, version 25.0, IBM Corp., Chicago, IL, USA) were used to compare differences in nutrients per 100g between meat and plant-based meat substitutes for the burger, sausage, and mince categories with data sourced from FSANZ or online supermarkets as described above.
Results and discussion
Data from 137 plant-based meat substitute products were collected, including 50 burgers, 29 sausages, 10 mince, 24 chicken, 9 seafood, and 15 ‘other’ meat substitutes (including ‘vegie roasts,’ deli slices such as mock ham and bacon, and tinned nut meat). The number of products overall had increased more than five-fold compared to 2015, with greatest growth seen in burgers (+614%), and seafood emerging as a new category, with no products previously captured from this group (Table 1).
Table 1. Changes in product numbers and type of plant-based meat substitute product between 2015 and 2019 audits.
2015 Total Products (n=26)
2019 Total Products (n=137)
When considering country of origin, the majority of products (61%) were made in Australia. This was followed by 12% from South Africa, 9% from United Kingdom, and 7% from New Zealand, with USA, Canada, Thailand, Taiwan, and Denmark producing smaller numbers of products.
Data on HSR, a comparison with similar meat-based products, key ingredients and packaging claims are also presented.
Meat consumption is growing globally (Gomez-Luciano, 2019; Wong et al. 2015) alongside recommendations to consume protein from plant sources. Although plant-based foods (both natural and manufactured) have been available for many years, the rapid and recent rise in the availability of new plant-based meat substitutes means that they have not been specifically included or addressed in country specific guidelines (Herforth et al. 2019) or in documents such as EAT Lancet (Willett et al. 2019). Yet, it has been said that moving to a diet based on more whole and plant-based foods could be ‘one of the most important dietary strategies at a global level both for the planet and for human health’ (Williams, 2019).
Understanding the nutrition implications and the profile of this category of products is important as more people adopt flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan dietary patterns. Also, there appears to be a ‘health halo’ effect (Sundar and Kardes, 2015) surrounding plant-based meat substitutes, that leads to a healthier perception, which may not be entirely justifiable. This research points to some limitations in the formulation of products, with some being higher than preferred in their sodium level. Importantly, many products fell short in terms of equivalence to similar meat varieties particularly in respect to micronutrients such as iron, zinc and Vitamin B12.
While this research was focused only on supermarket-based products, two known Australian fast food chains are also producing products utilising plant-based meat substitutes. At the fast-food chain; Grill’d, the Beyond BurgerTM is used in five meat free options (https://www.grilld.com.au) and through leveraging the established Whopper® brand at Hungry Jacks® a Vegan Cheeseburger is available (https://www.hungryjacks.com.au). It is likely that the opportunity to purchase these products via fast food outlets will help grow consumer acceptance due to a lower level of commitment attached to a fast-food purchase compared with supermarket.
Legumes were found in more than two-thirds of products captured within this audit. This is an important finding as modelling shows Australians need to increase current levels of legume intake by 470% to meet recommended amounts (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2011). Given the known barriers to legume consumption, such as a lack of knowledge in how to prepare them, and time constraints (Figueira et al. 2019), plant-based meat substitutes may offer a convenient and surreptitious way to increase intake, a conclusion supported by others (Figueira et al. 2019; Gilham et al. 2018). Similarly, in this study, 20% of burgers contained >8g/manufacturer serve of whole grain, presenting a distinct opportunity to help consumers reach their 48g Daily Intake Target. Ingredients like brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and other on-trend grains could be considered when formulating new options. In this respect, plant-based meat substitutes could become a vehicle for increasing whole grain consumption.
In order to attract consumers, front-of-pack claims and labelling systems such as the HSR, may be useful in directing consumers to healthier products within the category. Protein content as a claim was used on 60% of products yet a further 17% of products could be using this claim. The same was true for dietary fibre, where 39% of products display the claim yet an additional 19% of products from this review would be eligible to make a claim.
Plant-based meat substitutes may help disrupt the negativity around reducing meat, however, it is clear that some attention to nutrient composition and equivalence to meat is required from manufacturers to ensure that those with the greatest health literacy do not reject plant-based meat due to the detailed nutrition information on pack. Ethically, it is in the interest of good public health policy to ensure equivalence. There is also a very clear opportunity for grains, particularly whole grains and legumes to be featured in these products.
Full open access paper click here:
To the valuable contributions from the grain and legume food industry, in particular, to the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre, as GLNC’s Foundation Contributor
Tilman D, Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature. 2014;515:518-522 DOI 10.1038/nature13959.
Grasso A, Hung, Y., Olthof, MR., Verbeke, W., Brouwer, IA. Older Consumers’ Readiness to Accept Alternative, More Sustainable Protein Sources in the European Union. Nutrients. 2019;11(1904 ):DOI 10.3390/nu11081904.
Williams P. Broadening influence on the food supply and environmental sustainability. Nutrition & Dietetics. 2019;76:247-249 DOI 10.1111/1747-0080.12554.
GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet. 2019;393 (10184):1958-1972 DOI 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30041-8.
Elzerman JE, van Boekel MAJS, Luning PA. (2013) Exploring meat substitutes: Consumer experiences and contextual factors. British Food Journal.115(5):700-710. doi:10.1108/00070701311331490.
Mellentin J. Key Trends in Functional Foods & Beverages for 2019: From personalized nutrition plans to naturally healthy foods, consumers will pay a premium for products that exceed their expectations. In. Nutraceuticals World. Vol 21: Rodman Media; 2018:44-50 Accessible (accessed 2020 June 2019).
Kaczorowskim M. A Year of Innovation in Meat Substitutes and Eggs, 2019. London, United Kingdom2019.
Grafenauer S, Curtain F. An Audit of Australian Bread with a Focus on Loaf Breads and Whole Grain. Nutrients. 2018;10(8):1106 DOI: 10.3390/nu10081106.
Gómez-Luciano CA. Consumers’ willingness to purchase three alternatives to meat proteins in the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Food quality and preference. 2019;78:DOI 10.1016/j.foodqual.2019.103732.
Wong L, Selvanathan EA, Selvanathan S. Modelling the meat consumption patterns in Australia. Economic Modelling. 2015;49:1-10 DOI 10.1016/j.econmod.2015.03.002.
Herforth A, Arimond, M., Álvarez-Sánchez, C., Coates, J., Christianson, K., Muehlhoff, E. A Global Review of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines. Advances in Nutrition. 2019;10(4):590–605 DOI 10.1093/advances/nmy1130.
Willett W, Rockstrom J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. 2019;6736(18):31788-31784
Sundar A, Kardes, FR.,. The Role of Perceived Variability and the Health Halo Effect in Nutritional Inference and Consumption. Psychology & Marketing. 2015;32(5):512–521
Grilld. Beyond Burgers. 2019; Accessed 19 September 2019.
Hungry Jack's. Vegan Cheeseburger. 2019; Accessed 19 September 2019.
National Health and Medical Research Council. A modelling system to inform the revision of the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Canberra, Australia 2011.
Figueira N, Curtain F, Beck E, Grafenauer S. Consumer Understanding and Culinary Use of Legumes in Australia. 2019;11(7):1575
Gilham B, Hall R, Woods JL. Vegetables and legumes in new Australasian food launches: how are they being used and are they a healthy choice? Nutrition journal. 2018;17(104)
Was this page helpful?