People who eat vegetarian meat substitutes because they are a healthy option may be fooling themselves with a quarter of such products found to have insufficient amounts of protein, according to research published on Wednesday.
The Safefood report also noted that many such products were highly processed, full of sugar and salt and often as unhealthy as their meat alternative.
According to the report, 34 per cent of consumers who buy meat substitutes do so because they think they are good for them although 25 per cent of the hundreds of such products available in Ireland have either no or low levels of protein.
Safefood said its research pointed to the need for consumers to check nutrition labels on meat-substitute products, most notably vegetable burgers, sausages and mince.
It looked at the nutritional content of 354 plant-based products selling in Irish supermarkets including many which are positioned in a category of foods which provide protein such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts and beans.
"Judging by the number of plant-based meat substitute products now available, there's clearly a market for these as alternatives to meats, such as beef or chicken," said Safefood's director of human health and nutrition, Dr Catherine Conlon.
She accepted that such products were “popular choices for many people who want an alternative source of protein in their diet, or want to eat them for ethical or environmental reasons” but warned that many “were not an adequate source of protein”.
She also noted that many such products were simply highly processed foods. “If you think about it, eating a sausage roll, whether that’s plant-based or meat, is still a sausage roll.”
The top three products on the Irish market are meat alternative burgers, mince and sausages while the top three reasons people give for buying them are because they are supposedly better for you, taste, and environmental impact, in that order.
“There are some positives to these products; some are lower in fat and saturated fat than their meat equivalents while others are a source of fibre,” Dr Conlon said. “The reality is that these are processed foods and a bit of a mixed bag. If you are going to eat them, read the label and look for products that are a good source of protein and lower in saturated fat, sugar and salt.”