Salt levels in meat alternatives in Australia

If you’ve been following the news in the past few weeks, you might have come across news reports talking about unhealthy amounts of salt in common vegan products sold in Australian supermarkets. Sitting back, I witnessed two sets of reactions unfold: those in the keto/carnivore camp gleefully reposted the news reports and cheered to ‘another blow to vegans’ – and others in the vegan camp were instead quick to dismiss the news as the umpteenth attempt from the meat/dairy/egg industry to discredit veganism. Unfortunately, both reactions missed the mark. I’ve written this article to set the record straight: the report published last week by The George Institute for Global Health highlights an important issue – and it would be a grave mistake to dismiss it.

In this article, I’ll be tackling the following questions:

  1. What is this report?
  2. What did the report find?
  3. Why do the report’s findings matter? In other words, why is salt such a big problem?
  4. Tips for choosing the right vegan products.
  • What report are the news headlines talking about? 

On September 10th, a joint report by the World Health Organization task force on salt reduction, the VicHealth Salt Partnership, and The George Institute for Global Health was published. In it, the report warns that meat-free alternatives that have recently flooded supermarkets may be marketed as plant-based and organic – yet they often hide a surprisingly dangerous amount of salt.

It’s important to note this report DID NOT compare meat and ‘plant-based meat’ products and is simply looking at the constitution of various vegan products that have recently hit the shelves in Australia. Thus, nothing in this report suggests that meat is better than plant-based meat products. Overall, we know that adopting a plant-based or plant focussed diet leads to better health outcomes and lower disease risk compared to adopting a diet rich in animal products, however, these benefits are tightly associated with the adoption of a whole food, unprocessed, plant-based diet – not highly processed vegan products. [1]

With the adoption of a plant-based diet becoming increasingly popular it makes sense to analyse the new products that brands are bringing out to capitalise on this market demand.

  • What did the report find? 

By analysing 564 products from 2010 until 2019, the report concluded that many popular ‘mock meats’ in Australian supermarkets may sometimes contain just as much salt as their animal-based counterparts. 

They found that, on average, the category with the highest sodium content per 100g was meat-free bacon, followed by falafels and meat-free sausages. One falafel brand, Monjay Mezza, contained a staggering 1260mg of sodium per 100g – which is just slightly under the ideal daily limit for salt. While the findings aren’t all that surprising (making soy taste like bacon surely doesn’t come easy!), they are indeed quite alarming. 

  • Why do the report’s findings matter? In other words, why is salt such a big problem?

Sugar and saturated fat tend to get a lot of bad press these days, but salt is often overlooked, at least by younger populations who don’t have to worry about blood pressure just yet. Indeed, some amount of sodium is needed by our bodies to regulate pressure and ensure proper nerve and muscle function. However, it is the amount of salt that is problematic. The National Health and Medical Research Council has set an ‘Adequate Intake’ of 460–920 mg of sodium per day, which corresponds to 1.15–2.3 grams of salt. However, on average, most Australian adults have a daily salt intake of about 10 grams, which is many times the maximum value of the Adequate Intake range. [2] This consumption level is unparalleled in the history of the human species and is greatly problematic given that excessive salt intake has consistently been linked to an increased risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure, which affects ⅓ of Australians), which, in turn, has a number of dangerous long-term health outcomes, and greatly increases the risk of both stroke and heart disease [3]. Given that Australia’s biggest killer is cardiovascular disease, efforts to curb salt intake are at the top of the public health agenda – and rightfully so.

  • Tips for choosing the right vegan products

What the report highlighted is that not all fake meat products are made equal. Indeed, there is a vast range in saltiness in common food (you can check the 5 best and worst-performing mock meats here) but overall, if you are going to purchase vegan imitation meat, there are a few tips to help you choose the right product. 

  • Choose unflavoured tofu & tempeh and make the marinade yourself. 
  • Try to stay clear of vegan ‘bacon’, as this tends to be the worst offender. 
  • Make your own falafel or make sure the one you’re buying doesn’t have too much salt.
  • Aim for a product that contains less than 120mg of salt per 100g. Keep in mind that a Beyond Burger pattie, for example, contains 390mg per 113g pattie.
  • Always check the label to choose the lower sodium option. 
  • Substitute vegan processed foods with homemade patties, canned beans (rinsed and drained) or fresh whole foods.

Summary & Conclusions

We are often guilty of assuming that just because a food product is vegan, it must be healthy. This report highlights that we should really be looking at a packet’s nutritional information to understand how much saturated fat, added sugar and salt are in a product –  rather than just assuming a food is ok because it’s animal-free. Not all mock meats are made equal – and it’s not enough to take the product’s claims at face value. 
Unfortunately, with the rise of veganism, more and more food manufacturers have flooded the market with vegan junk food of all sorts. We can now easily find vegan ice creams, fake meats and sweet treats that are often packed with similar amounts of sugar, salt and fat as their non-vegan counterparts. While these foods may suit those who choose to eliminate animal products for ethical reasons, they are doing nothing to help those who look to a vegan diet for its health-promoting potential.

It’s important to keep in mind that the many incredible health benefits of a plant-based diet (which I’ve spoken about at length in my podcast and blog) apply to those consuming a variety of whole food plants – not to those regularly consuming processed vegan foods. These can be enjoyed on occasion, but should not be making a regular appearance on your plates. For evidence-based healthy plant-based eating, refer back to the Plant Proof Healthy Vegan Pyramid – and remember that you want your diet to be made up as much as possible by whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Processed foods – vegan or not – should be kept to a bare minimum, these foods have been engineered to be tasty and addictive, not to be healthy!

REFERENCES

[1] Healthy Plant-Based Diets Are Associated with Lower Risk of All-Cause Mortality in US Adults. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29659968

[2] Salt and Hypertension | Nutrition Australia n.d. http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/frequently-asked-questions/salt-and-hypertension 

[3] Harvard Health Publishing. Cut salt – it won’t affect your iodine intake – Harvard Health. Harvard Health n.d. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/cut-salt-it-wont-affect-your-iodine-intake

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