Plant-based proteins: Which products are healthiest?

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  • Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular.
  • Not all plant-based proteins are, however, equally nutritious.
  • Plant proteins are more environmentally friendly than animal proteins.

With plant-based diets gaining popularity, there are numerous meat alternatives on the market, which can cause confusion among consumers.

These are some of the more common questions buyers ask:

  • Are plant protein products healthier than red meat?
  • Is the manufacturing process healthy?
  • Do they contain a lot of additives?
  • Can plant-based proteins meet my daily protein needs?

The importance of protein

Protein is an important nutrient, which the body requires for growth, and the production and repair of body cells, enzymes and hormones.

The nutritional value of a protein is measured by the quantity of essential amino acids it contains.

Essential amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which the body cannot make or produce itself.

Animal protein and soya protein are both complete proteins, as they contain all the essential amino acids.

The proteins present in grains like quinoa, and in legumes like beans and lentils, lack some essential amino acids and also provide less protein compared to animal sources.

Why should we consume more plant protein?

Compared to red meat, plant-based proteins offer a healthier nutritional profile as they contain more fibre and less fat.

In fact, studies have found that those who consume a diet high in red meat (350g/week) have a 9% higher risk of developing heart disease and stroke (18% for those who consume the same amount of processed red meat).

It is interesting to note that most South Africans consume far more red meat than the 350g per week mentioned above.

What about processing?

Raw and natural sources of plant protein, such as lentils, edamame beans, chickpeas and soya beans, are not processed and do not contain any additives.

In meat-alternative products such as plant-based nuggets, schnitzels, mince, sausages, patties and strips, the main ingredient is soya protein.

The products, therefore, are complete proteins. They do, however, contain added sodium and fat.

The table below compares the energy, protein and fat content of different plant-based products per 100g compared to 100g animal protein.

It is evident that some of the meat alternatives are slightly lower in protein, and contain more energy and fat compared to meat and chicken.

The best is, therefore, to a select product with less than 10g fat and less than 120mg sodium per 100g. 

A plant-based protein comparison.
Comparing plant-based protein products.

Sustainability

Plant protein is environmentally more sustainable than animal protein. Replacing beef with beans would reduce the ecological footprint worldwide.

To produce 1kg protein from beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, nine times less fuel, 12 times less fertiliser and 10 times less pesticide than 1kg protein from beef.

Conclusion

When evaluating the health benefits of plant-based protein as well as environmental sustainability, it is recommended that we replace meat and chicken one to three times per week with plant protein.

The best plant-protein foods to choose are unprocessed options like legumes, soya, tofu, and edamame beans, as they are low in fat and sodium.

They don't have to be boring and can be prepared and cooked in tasty and delicious ways.

To keep your food choices interesting and varied, processed soya products can also be used. The best choices are mince or patties once or twice a week.

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