The future might be meat-free, but new research shows the current range of plant-based alternatives might be doing us more harm than good

(Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)Processed meat-free foods like falafels are helping drive our salt consumption higher.
  • In an effort to compete on taste, meat-free alternatives are being made with excessive amounts of salt, according to new Australian research.
  • From falafels, vegan pies, meat-free bacon and sausages, single serves of some vegetarian and vegan options were found by health organisations to be loaded with as much as half the daily recommendation.
  • With 2.5 million Australians eating meat-free, increasingly salty food is putting us at increased risk of heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. Accordingly, the research group made up the Heart Foundation, VicHealth and The George Insistute for Global Health is calling on the government to set voluntary salt targets for the food industry.

The humble falafel might be cruelty-free, but it also might be killing you.

That’s the suggestion out of new Australian research that proposes the country’s increasing taste for a meat-free diet might be based on a national love of salt.

Of some 190 meat-free products available in Australia, some had as much as half the recommended salt intake in a single-serve, a survey by The George Institute for Global Health, VicHealth, and the Heart Foundation found.

“Our research showed that there are large ranges in the amount of salt between meat alternative products,” Heart Foundation dietitian Sian Armstrong said in a note on the research.

Increased salt intake puts Australians at greater risk of heart attacks, kidney disease and stroke, with Armstrong encouraging people to compare before they consume.

“It is possible to choose a healthier item by picking the lower salt option. It also clearly shows that manufacturers can produce products that are much lower in salt,” she said.

You need only look as far as one of the country’s favourite snacks — the falafel.

“Monjay Mezza Traditional Falafel and Spinach Falafel proved saltiest with three grams of salt per 100 grams –- 10 times saltier than the falafels with the least amount of salt, Naturally Falafel varieties,” Armstrong said.

The worst offenders overall, however, was a vegan pie which contained 2.5 grams of salt per serve. Current World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines recommend Australians restrict their intake to no more than 5 grams per day, although we consume nearly twice that on average.

Vegetarians and vegans could be helping bring that average up, with meat-free bacon on average accounting for 2 grams per serve — more than real bacon contains. Meanwhile on average, falafels and meat-free sausages both carry 1.3 grams.

Similarly, meat-free fastfood like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, for example, both have higher sodium than their meaty competitors, even though they contain less fat and fewer calories.

It goes to show that, despite an explosion of meat-free products to cater for an estimated 2.5 million meat-free Australians, nutritional quality remains a problem.

“It’s concerning that, in nearly a decade, there has been no change to the salt levels in any of the meat alternative products we looked at, and that new products coming on to the market are so high in salt, despite government commitments to reduce population salt intake,” George Institute senior public health nutritionist Clare Farrand said.

She proposed that the Australian government take the lead from the UK and set salt targets for the food industry.

That’s not to say the entire industry is awash in sodium, vegetarians just need to take a little care.

“The growing number of Australians choosing to eat more plant-based foods is a positive move for health, but it is important that people focus on the quality and sources of plant foods, as some can be highly processed and lacking in nutrients,” Heart Foundation CEO Victoria Kellie-Ann Jolly said.

“Meat alternatives such as tofu and falafel can be good protein sources as part of a healthy balanced diet, but with any processed or packaged foods, it’s critical not to rely on words or images that make a product appear healthier than it is. Check the label and pick the less salty option.”

Now that’s some advice to chew on.

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