Are Plant-Based Alternatives Harmful To Our Health?

Researchers reveal the nutritional impact of some plant-based foods, and what you should look out for.
Are Plant-Based Alternatives Harmful To Our Health?
A cross section of a plant-based patty with a meaty taste, taken on December 28, 2021. (Jack GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

In today’s health-conscious world, plant-based diets have surged in popularity. However, what’s the real nutritional content of these foods, and are they genuinely healthy?

In February 2024, Deakin University researchers, Laura Marchese and Katherine Livingstone, published their findings in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis after examining 700 plant-based foods available in Australian supermarkets.
The researchers visited two of each of the four major supermarket retailers across Melbourne in 2022, examining and documenting the nutritional labels of a wide array of plant-based foods from alternative meats to non-dairy products.

Nutritional Riches and Gaps

What they found uncovered a spectrum of nutritional richness across the 700 plant-based foods studied. While many foods were rich in levels of essential nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, others fell short in certain areas.

Of particular concern was the sodium content, which varied widely across products. For instance, tofu contained as little as one milligram per 100 grams, while plant-based mince products reached as high as 2,000 milligrams per 100 grams.

Another study from October 2022, published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, investigated changes in processed plant-based products available in Australia from 2014 to 2021. It found variations in sodium levels from 316mg to 640mg per 100g.

Subsequent research in 2019, involving an audit of 137 products, revealed an expanded range of up to 1,200mg per 100g.

The takeaway?

Plant-based meats tended to be lower in energy, fat, and saturated fat (per 100 grams) compared to conventional meat products. They also appear to be getting saltier. Thus, researchers caution consumers to pay close attention to things like nutritional value to make informed choices, as outlined in the study, not all plant-based products are nutritionally equivalent.

Calcium Sources in Plant-Based Diets

Regarding calcium, more than 70 percent of plant-based milk audited in the study contained fortified calcium, crucial for bone health and nerve function.

However, not all plant-based milk products were fortified adequately.

In another audit from 2019-2020, it examined 115 plant-based milks across Melbourne and Sydney, it was discovered that only 43 percent of these products were fortified with calcium. Among the fortified milk surveyed, 73 percent met the recommended calcium content of at least 100 milligrams per 100 millilitres.

In the Deakin University audit, the researchers extended to assessing the saturated fat content of various plant-based milks. Coconut-based milk emerged with an average saturated fat content up to six times higher than almond, oat, or soy milk.

These findings align with previous audits, which consistently identify coconut-based milk as significantly higher in saturated fat compared to other milk categories. With this in mind, it is important not to rely solely on them for meeting calcium needs.

Plant-based Cheeses and Non-Dairy Yoghurt

The audit also looked at cheese and yogurt alternatives found in Australian supermarkets and concluded that calcium content was indicated on just one-third of plant-based yogurts, and only 20 percent of these options available in supermarkets met the recommended threshold of 100 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams.
With plant-based cheeses, 92 percent lacked calcium fortification. Their sodium content ranged from 390 milligrams to 1,400 milligrams per 100 grams, while saturated fat levels varied between 0 grams and 28 grams per 100 grams.

How to Ensure a Balanced Diet

Pick Your Vegetables and Legumes Wisely
To ensure a balanced plant-based diet, an article in The National Library of Medicine outlined that legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and black beans are sources of dietary fiber, nutrients, and minerals that also keep you fuller for longer.

Dark green and leafy vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale, serve as essential sources of bone-strengthening calcium, although some greens like spinach hinder calcium absorption due to oxalates, and are best consumed separately from calcium-rich foods.

Let’s now take a closer look at two of the lower saturated plant-based milks:

Soy milk has been around for thousands of years, with its earliest mention in written text dating back to the 14th century China.

Soy beans are naturally rich in plant proteins, making it low in saturated fat and higher in protein than any other plant based milk, equal to dairy milk.

Most soy milks contains as much fortified calcium than other plant choices. Australia’s Vitasoy Calci- Plus brand of soy milk contains 400 milligrams of fortified calcium, and 8 grams of protein per its recommended serving size of 250 millilitres. This brand also contains other fortified nutrients like vitamin D, phosphorus, and magnesium.
According to dietitian Lizzie Streit, cashew milk also contains healthy fats and a variety of vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.

However, while lower in saturated fat, store-bought cashew milk can  contain added sugar and preservatives compared to home made.

Embrace Variety and Flavour

Incorporating a diverse range of plant foods maximizes nutrient intake and minimizes deficiencies.

For instance, tofu is a great source of protein and offers a variety of ways it can be cooked and used in dishes.

Swapping out flavored tofu for plain and incorporating herbs and spices keeps the sodium and sugar content in check.

Read Labels

When choosing alternative protein products, scrutinize labels for additives and prioritize minimally processed  options. The ‘nutritional facts’ label on the back of products is what you need to look for to make informed decisions with how it fits into your dietary needs.

Interestingly, according to researchers from Michigan State University, vegan, plant-based or animal free labelling are actually considered trend or marketing labels because often, they do not show the health or safety of the product.

In the complex landscape of food choices, a discerning eye on labels and a commitment to understanding nutritional information empower us to make the healthiest choices for our diets and well-being.