With veganism on the rise – a survey released last year found that around 3.5 million Britons have adopted a plant-based diet – many people are turning to meat substitutes to bulk out their meals and ensure they’re consuming enough protein.
While meat-free protein sources including beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya, nuts, seeds, wheat, rice, maize, milk, yoghurt and cheese all provide protein, many vegetarians like to consume mycoprotein, a single-cell protein derived from funghi.
Quorn is a mycoprotein and one of the best-known brands of meat alternatives. And in July 2018, the vegetarian company, best known for its meat-free mince and “chicken style” pieces, announced it will be investing £7m into a new product development centre with the hope of capitalising on the UK’s growing appetite for meat substitutes.
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But whilst there’s no denying the benefit to the environment of cutting down your meat intake, do substitutes actually provide all the nutrients we need?
“Plant-based sources of protein are generally incomplete – they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein – meaning it’s essential to eat a variety of them every day,” registered dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine explained to The Independent.
“Soya, quinoa and hemp are the only plant-based complete sources of protein i.e. they contain all of the essential amino acids that our body needs.”
Ludlam-Raine says it’s important to bear in mind, however, that meat-alternatives often contain a lot less protein than their meaty equivalents.
While this may not be an issue for everyone – the majority of people in the UK eat more than enough protein on a daily basis – fitness fanatics and avid gym-goers, who require a higher than average protein intake for muscle repair, may need to make an effort to consume enough protein if they’re not eating meat.
The average person requires a minimum of 0.8g protein per kg of body weight a day, but this can increase to 2g if you’re a regular exerciser or are trying to lose fat and prevent muscle loss.
Here’s how some of the most popular meat-free alternatives compare to chicken breast protein-wise:
Chicken breast – 24g protein/100g (raw weight)
Quorn – 14g protein/100g
Tofu – 11.5g protein/100g
Chickpeas – 7g protein/100g
Jackfruit – 1.7g protein/100g
We spoke to Harley Street nutritionist and Re-Nourish author Rhiannon Lambert to get her verdict on some of the most widely consumed meat substitutes:
Unlike most plant proteins, tofu (which is made from soya) contains all the essential amino acids we require from food because they cannot be made by the body. “Soya is typically affordable and nutritious, being that it is a good source of iron and calcium and the minerals manganese, selenium and phosphorus,” Lambert explains.
However, the health benefits of soya are often disputed: while the oft-heard claim that soya contains oestrogen is a mere myth – rather, it contains phytoestrogens – some studies have suggested that men who consume soya regularly have a lower concentration of sperm.
While tofu is unfermented, tempeh is a fermented soya product that has recently become a popular vegetarian meat replacement – soya beans are fermented and then pressed into a compact cake.
“It is high in protein, probiotics (which are beneficial to your gut health) and is a source of magnesium, phosphorus and manganese,” says Lambert. It’s also been linked to lowering cholesterol, boosting bone health and is considered one of the healthiest plant-based protein sources. At 320 calories per cup, it’s quite calorie-dense though.
Seitan is a vegan protein source that is typically made from wheat gluten and water. It also contains the minerals selenium and iron. “Seitan is a good option for vegans who cannot eat soya products as other popular vegetarian foods (such as tofu and tempeh) are soya-based,” adds Lambert.
However seitan is usually processed, and some store-bought versions are high in additives, salt and preservatives.
Lambert believes Quorn is a good alternative protein source and it is high in fibre which has been linked to helping to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. “It is also low in saturated fat and is incredibly versatile with mince options, sausages, burger and meat style pieces.”
Quorn is made from mycoprotein which is produced by adding oxygen, nitrogen, glucose and minerals to a fungus called Fusarium venenatum. While the fungus is edible, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) claim some people have adverse reactions to it. “We urge consumers to avoid Quorn and urges retailers not to sell this product that is dangerous to sensitive individuals,” says the CSPI.
Jackfruit has recently risen in popularity largely due to its close resemblance to pulled pork. However, as tasty as it is, it’s not a great source of protein. “So if you’re going to add it to your main meal, make sure serve it up with something like lentils, quinoa or beans,” Lambert advises.
The fruit is low in calories, a good source of fibre and potassium, and it’s typically served with minimal processing.
“A well planned plant-based diet can be both nutritious and healthy, and meat-free diets have indeed been associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and various cancers,” says Ludlam-Raine.
“This could be down to the fact that meat-alternatives often provide more fibre and less saturated fat (and fewer calories), however most of the research is only observational and many vegetarians may be more health conscious; thus being more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke.”
Even if you’re an omnivore, adding some plant-based protein to your diet can be a great way to add some diversity to what you’re consuming, as well as benefiting the environment.