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Most plant-based meat and dairy alternatives have lower saturated fat and higher fibre, study finds

Most plant-based meat and dairy alternatives have lower levels of saturated fat and higher fibre than their animal-derived counterparts, researchers have found.

They also have substantially lower environmental impacts, including lower greenhouse gas emissions, use of water resources and land use, according to a review of evidence on plant-based alternatives to meat, cheese, eggs and yoghurt.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) who analysed over 90 studies and reports from 2016 to 2022 suggested plant-based alternatives could be a “useful steppingstone” towards a healthy and sustainable diet, though they warned nutritional value can vary considerably between products.

Plant-based alternatives “have the potential to be healthier and nutrient-rich,” they said, but added that their nutritional contents are complex.

The primary ingredient, as well as processing techniques and brand, were all vital in determining a product’s nutritional value and environmental impact.

The researchers found that while plant-based alternatives “technically” fall under the category of ultra-processed foods (UPFs), the nutritional value of some products aligns with dietary recommendations including being high fibre and low in saturated fats.

They added that by establishing a “clear division” between less processed and ultra-processed products short and long-term health impacts could be better assessed.

The researchers said the evidence suggests there are positive health benefits of switching to plant-based meats and dairy alternatives.

They argue clearer labelling is needed to help consumers who may be considering a plant-based diet to make informed choices for their health and environmental impact.

Read more:
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‘A useful steppingstone’

Sarah Najera Espinosa, a research student at LSHTM and first author of the study, said: “Although whole foods are still considered the ‘gold standard’ for healthy and environmentally friendly diets, environmental and health outcomes from some novel plant-based foods are promising.

“Our review has demonstrated that some products, such as legume and vegetable-based drinks and legume- and mycoprotein-based meats, have the potential to be a useful steppingstone in the process of food system and dietary transformation if they are carefully selected.”

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‘Limited evidence’ suggests swap could be good for health

The academics said the “limited evidence” on swapping meat for plant-based alternatives suggests the shift could be good for health.

But they said the results for plant-based drinks were mixed, with links to micronutrient deficiencies.

On average both meat and drink alternatives had comparable salt levels to animal-based products, though meat alternatives contained more sugar and some plant-based cheese alternatives had 50% higher saturated fat than dairy cheese.

The study excluded tofu, tempeh and seitan, as these have been part of traditional Asian diets for centuries and evidence shows they are a healthy alternative.

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