A 2023 report released by ProVeg Netherlands titled “How Healthy Are Meat Substitutes? Analysis of The Nutritional Value of Meat Substitutes Compared to Animal Meat Products,” found that meat substitutes are often a healthier choice than the meat products they replace.

ProVeg Netherlands analyzed the nutritional composition of meat substitutes from Dutch supermarkets and compared them to animal meat. The report compared 130 vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes with 41 animal reference products based on criteria set by the Netherlands Nutrition Center.

On average, the plant-based products contained less saturated fat, fewer calories and significantly more dietary fiber. In addition, they had a similar percentage of calories from protein. This indicates that, in terms of the risk for lifestyle diseases, meat substitutes often have a slightly better composition than animal meat, especially red and processed meat.

Main Results

  • Plant-based burgers, mincemeat, meatballs, sausage and bacon received a better average score than animal meat when tested against the criteria of the Netherlands Nutrition Center.
  • Shawarma and nuggets showed similar scores for both plant-based and animal products. Animal meat only scored better in the categories of chicken chunks, chicken fillet and schnitzel.
  • Of the meat substitutes examined, 85% met the protein criterion for meat substitutes, while 88% of the animal reference products met this standard.
  • On average, all categories of meat substitutes contained sufficient iron and vitamin B12, even when non-fortified products were included in the calculation.
  • 33% of the meat substitutes examined successfully met all of the criteria outlined by the Nutrition Center for meat substitutes concerning the risk of lifestyle diseases, including salt, sugar and saturated fat content. In contrast, only 17% of the animal reference products met these criteria.

Fair Comparison
Criticism of the health aspects of meat substitutes has been on the rise, notably due to concerns about elevated salt levels in some products. Previous studies have shown that only a small proportion of Dutch meat substitutes meet all the national criteria. ProVeg's analysis complements these studies and provides a broader context by including a comparison with traditional meat products.

Martine Van Haperen, nutrition and health expert at ProVeg, says, “With this study, we wanted to make a fair comparison by not only testing meat substitutes against the national criteria, but also contrasting them with the products they replace.

“When making food choices, consumers are not only concerned with health and nutrition, but also taste. They like to eat their favorite traditional dishes, like sausage stew or eggs and bacon. Salty and fatty flavors are essential to the experience of eating these products.

“It is obvious that meat substitute manufacturers will not be able to make a plant-based product with the same salty, fatty taste that simultaneously meets all the national health criteria. That is why our report compares the plant-based substitutes with similar animal meat products.

“It turned out that meat substitutes often have a slightly better nutritional composition. So as a consumer, opting for a meat substitute over a processed animal meat product generally does not entail a compromise in terms of health.”

Big Differences Between Meat Substitutes
The research shows that there are major differences in health between different types of meat substitutes, just like there are between different types of meat products. This means that it is necessary to check individual products to find out which meat substitutes are the healthiest. Most healthy meat substitutes can be found in the categories that replace unprocessed animal meat, such as vegan chicken and mincemeat. In categories where the animal meat is very salty and contains a lot of saturated fat, such as (smoked) sausage, burgers and bacon, the meat substitutes are also usually not considered healthy according to the national criteria, although they often have a better composition than the animal meat products.

As with animal meat, too high a salt content is the main reason why many meat substitutes do not meet all the national criteria. Meat substitutes are on average less salty than processed meat, but saltier than unprocessed meat.

Useful Nutrients
There have been claims that meat substitutes cannot sufficiently replace the nutritional value of animal meat. Of the plant-based products included in the analysis, 85% met the protein criterion for meat substitutes of the Netherlands Nutrition Center, versus 88% of the animal reference products. 55% of the substitutes were fortified with iron and vitamin B12. The fortified products usually contained considerably more added iron and vitamin B12 than the national criteria. As a result, the meat substitutes on average contained enough of both nutrients, even if the non-fortified meat substitutes were included in the calculation.

“If consumers incorporate both fortified and non-fortified meat substitutes into their diet, their average intake of iron and vitamin B12 meets the criteria set for meat substitutes. Nevertheless, it would of course be better if even more meat substitutes were fortified with iron and vitamin B12, so that the nutritional value would correspond more closely with that of meat,” says Van Haperen.

Processed Food
Due to the increasing attention to the health risks of ultra-processed food, the question is sometimes raised as to whether meat substitutes made from processed plant proteins are a healthy alternative to animal meat.

“According to the current definition, meat substitutes are considered to be ultra-processed, but it doesn't make sense to lump them together with products such as sweets or crisps. Just like with animal meat, there are healthy and less healthy products. The degree of processing is not in itself a sufficient indication as to whether or not meat substitutes are healthy,” says Van Haperen.

Meat Substitutes Make Meat Reduction Easier
The share of animal proteins in the diet of the average Dutch person has fallen in recent years from 61% to 58%. The government has set the goal that 50% of the consumed proteins should be plant-based by 2030. If the current trend continues, that percentage will not be reached.

“This much-needed change in our diet is very difficult to achieve, even among consumers who are aware of the benefits of eating more plant-based foods. Meat substitutes such as plant-based minced meat, chicken chunks and burgers make it easier for consumers to reduce their meat consumption,” says Van Haperen.

Meat substitutes are becoming increasingly affordable. According to previous research by ProVeg Netherlands, some variants are now even cheaper than the cheapest animal meat. 

“With the growing consumption of meat substitutes, it is crucial that they not only offer good nutritional value but also ideally present a healthier alternative to animal meat,” says Van Haperen.