From an environmental point of view, plant-based alternatives to meat are superior to meat itself, to a more or less significant extent, depending on how they are made. From a nutritional point of view, however, the situation is much more nuanced, and depends, as always happens with industrial products, on the composition. This conclusion was reached by an Italian study, published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry by researchers from the University of Parma, who compared the quality of three steaks and three cured meats with their vegetable counterparts, finding different results.

In fact, if plant products contain on average less protein than their counterparts, they still have high concentrations of amino acids, the components of the proteins themselves. However, the sum of amino acids does not meet the criteria established by the FAO for children’s nutrition. As for carbohydrates, they are present in higher concentrations in vegetable meats than in meat, as is obvious, since in many cases the former contain legume and cereal flours.

If we then analyze digestibility, we see that plant-based steaks are less digestible than those of animal origin, while the opposite happens for cured meats. In general, however, and as expected, it emerges that a lot depends on the quality of the starting vegetable flours and how they are processed.

Comparison of plant-based alternatives

That this is the case is also confirmed by a much more substantial article, published on Nutrition Reviews. This is one of the most complete meta-analyses ever carried out, in which 57 peer-reviewed research and 36 other articles focused on plant-based alternatives (including those with mycoproteins) were compared. They compared meats, milk, cheeses and eggs with their plant-based counterparts to determine which was the best option.

Vegetarian vegan sausages with rosemary and onion baked in a cast iron skillet.  plant-based alternatives
The study compared meat, milk, cheese and eggs with their plant-based counterparts to determine which was the best option

To try to avoid distortions linked to studies sponsored by companies, the authors, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, introduced a corrective parameter, and thus saw that, despite some differences, completely independent research and sponsored research arrive to roughly the same type of conclusion. That is: in general, plant foods have less saturated fat, a lower caloric density and a higher fiber concentration than meat.

Mycoproteins are unbeatable

As regards the different types, the best plant products are those based on mycoproteins, while for the others the variability increases significantly. In fact, when the flours are made from cereals, the caloric density increases and is much closer to that of meat, and the same happens with fibre.

When the flours come from nuts such as walnuts and the like, however, the content of saturated fatty acids rises (very low in mycoproteins), even if it does not reach that of meat.

As regards carbohydrates, also in this case the quantity is greater in vegetable substitutes than in meat, while sodium is comparable, except in the case of products made with legumes (in which case it is lower). Again, mycoproteins have very few sugars, nut flours have high concentrations.

Furthermore, great variability can be seen in the context of micronutrients. Cereal-based substitutes have an iron content that is higher than that of products made with other vegetable flours. While when it comes to vitamin B12, animal meat is unbeatable.

Instead, from the protein point of view, a general equivalence emerges between legume-based meat alternatives and those with mycoproteins.

Avena's milk
Vegetable drinks have low concentrations of iodine which in no case reach those of animal milks


The study also analyzed 19 studies that compared vegetable drinks with cow’s milk, finding a lower caloric density, a lower saturated fat content and a higher quantity of fibre. As regards caloric density, the best is the one based on coconut, the worst are those with cereals, which in any case never exceed animal milk. Coconut milk, however, is the richest in saturated fats, contained in significantly higher quantities than those of cereals, fruit, nuts and seeds.

If compared with animal milk, these drinks have fewer naturally present sugars (and in this too, coconut milk is the best, followed by that with legumes, nuts and seeds). Vegetable drinks, however, have low concentrations of iodine, which in no case reach those of animal milks.

In addition to milk, then, there are yoghurts. In this case, plant-based ones, compared to cow’s milk ones, have more sugars and a higher caloric density, but offer more fibre, less sodium and less saturated fat.

farming, vegan vegetarian vegetable burger Depositphotos_370284820_S vegetable alternatives
Replacing animal proteins with plant-based alternatives is generally a good thing

The result of the comparison between cheeses is also detailed. In general, vegetable ones have more calories and more saturated fats than those made from animal milk (those based on nuts and seeds have the highest caloric density, those based on coconut have the highest concentration of saturated fat, which reaches 50% more than those made from animal milk). However, they also have much more fiber and less sodium and sugar than their classic counterparts (except in the case of coconut: cheeses containing it have sodium comparable to those made from animal milk).

The conclusions

In general, therefore, even if there is no type of vegetable alternative that is decidedly superior to the others, those based on mycoproteins, soy or legumes are better just as, as regards drinks, those with legumes or vegetables such as potatoes.

Cheeses are more problematic: those containing coconut have an overall balance that makes them inadvisable from a health point of view.

Again from a general point of view, the step that makes the difference is the replacement of animal meat especially with mycoprotein-based products, both for overweight and normal weight people without particular illnesses: many health indicators improve, starting with cardiovascular ones and weight, as well as the microbiota.

However, the issue of replacing cow’s milk is more complex. Those who opt exclusively for vegetable drinks may encounter an iodine deficiency that requires supplementation, and an increased risk of tooth decay, due to the high concentration of added sugars.

A label might help

What emerges, according to the authors, is the need to distinguish. Although replacing animal proteins with vegetable proteins is generally positive, a lot depends on the type of replacement: for example, some vegetable cheeses have 50% more fat than their classic counterparts. All this can generate great confusion among consumers, and for this reason the authors underline the importance of complete nutritional labels, but at the same time easily understandable by anyone, and always very visible, possibly combined with clear communication campaigns. It would probably be very useful to introduce a general classification such as Nutri-score, to help consumers immediately understand what type of product is being offered to them. Besides, if something like this existed, manufacturers would probably be motivated to reformulate foods to make us better, when necessary.

Finally, it is necessary to avoid excessive enthusiasm, because one could consume an excessive quantity of products that are not entirely positive, as well as unmotivated mistrust, considering all plant products unhealthy because they are ultra-processed. The reality is much more nuanced than that.

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