How healthy are meat and dairy alternatives?

Vegan diets are increasingly popular. As more of us reduce our animal product consumption, countless new meat and dairy alternatives appear on our supermarket shelves. Manufacturers market these products as healthy options (unsurprisingly), but perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to trust them...

In today’s short episode of ZOE Science & Nutrition, Jonathan and Sarah ask: Are meat and dairy alternatives healthier than their animal-based counterparts?

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Studies referenced in today's episode:

How well do plant-based alternatives fare nutritionally compared with cow’s milk?

Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up.

This podcast was produced by Fascinate Productions.


[00:00:00] Jonathan Wolf: Hello, and welcome to Zoe shorts the bite-size podcast, where we discuss one topic around science and nutrition. I'm Jonathan Wolf. And as always, I'm joined by Dr Sarah Berry and today's topic is meat and dairy alternatives. Are they healthier than the real deal? 

[00:00:23] Sarah Berry: So Jonathan, imagine your local supermarket for a second and think about how many more meat-free items and dairy-free items are available compared to say five years ago. And the demand for milk alternatives, plant-based proteins and vegan snacks has doubled in the last five years and it's soaring year on year. 

And this is as look to eat healthier products for both human and planetary health.  

[00:00:46] Jonathan Wolf: So are these alternatives really healthier or is this all just clever marketing?  

[00:00:50] Sarah Berry: Not all of these plant-based substitutes are made equally and with such a diverse range of meat and dairy alternatives out there, there are a few sides to this story. 

[00:00:58] Jonathan Wolf: Fantastic. Well, we've done a little bit of research, so let's get started. Now, first of all, why have we seen such an increase in demand for vegan products?  

[00:01:07] Sarah Berry: Yeah, so the proportion of people following either a vegetarian or a vegan diet has quadrupled in the UK and the US in the past five years alone, we need to recognize that the rise in numbers of people seeking these plant-based alternatives to meat or dairy or eggs or fish is largely motivated by a combination of factors. 

So the combination of human and planetary health, as well as animal welfare.  

[00:01:31] Jonathan Wolf: Last year a study was released that confirmed that farm animals produce more emissions than cars and vans combined. So reducing the demand for meat and dairy is going to have a positive impact on the planet, but just how beneficial is a vegan diet for your health? 

[00:01:45] Sarah Berry: So there's an abundance of evidence that shows. Healthy plant-based diets, which are the foundation, obviously, of vegan diets are associated with a lower risk of obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.  

We also know that low intakes of whole grains, nuts fruits and vegetables, which again are the foundation of a vegan and plant-based diet of among the leading dietary risk factors, associated with global deaths and disability-adjusted life use. 

So the quality of life and it's been estimated that if we can adhere to a plant-based diet, we could reduce cardiovascular mortality by about 20%.  

[00:02:25] Jonathan Wolf: So, as you mentioned, the supermarket earlier, but let's zoom in a little narrow. And let's look in our own house and maybe let's open the refrigerator. 

So around a third of people in the UK are going to have plant-based milk inside their fridge. And it's now a similar situation in the US. This is a huge increase, even just over the last 10 years. In the old days. I remember going to the shops with my mother and you got three options, right? 

You had full fat, skimmed or semi-skimmed milk or 0% and 1% as they would say in the states.  

[00:02:56] Sarah Berry: Yeah, me too.  

[00:02:57] Jonathan Wolf: now we have this amazing range of different kinds of milk to choose from. What's happened? 

[00:03:03] Sarah Berry: Probably several factors have created this kind of perfect storm for this rapid rise that you mentioned. 

I do think the leading factor is the perception that anything animal based is bad for our health. I do think there's also, we know an increase in lactose intolerance in the population and alongside the fact that an allergy to cows milk is one of the most common food allergies in young children.  

[00:03:24] Jonathan Wolf: So I go to a coffee shop. And I think this will be familiar to many of our listeners, the barista asks me what milk I'd like to add. And suddenly I've got a list of a dozen alternatives. How do I decide what's the right one for me and do these milk alternatives have particular benefits over other kinds of milk? 

[00:03:47] Sarah Berry: Yeah. So whilst plant-based milks are typically lower in saturated, fat and calories, then cow milk provides some of the nutritional benefits of the whole plant that they may have originated from. Much of the favourable part of the plant has been destroyed. Many new ingredients have also been added. 

So it's also worth considering what additional ingredients are also in the product other than the plant that they claim to be originating from.  

[00:04:14] Jonathan Wolf: So many of these products are presented as healthier than dairy. Um, but I think you're saying that if I drink almond milk, that's not the same as just eating an almond. 

[00:04:24] Sarah Berry: Absolutely. So almond milk, rice, milk, Oat milk. These aren't milk, typically, where the original plant has just been, uh, ground down or added with water to make it into milk. A lot more has gone on.  

[00:04:39] Jonathan Wolf: A lot of these are presented as healthier for me than dairy. Is this what the science says?  

[00:04:43] Sarah Berry: Clever marketing pitches this, but actually there's no research today to back up these claims. 

[00:04:55] Jonathan Wolf: So I think that's a bit shocking because I feel as though I've definitely picked up the idea that a whole bunch of these alternatives are better for me than milk. You're saying that's not necessarily the case?  

[00:05:13] Sarah Berry: Yeah. So if we take rice milk, for example, rice milk contains very little protein, very little calcium and lots more carbohydrate than cow's milk. 

If we take oat milk as well, it contains so many added ingredients and doesn't contain a lot of the beneficial structural components that make oats good when we, them outside of their milk matrix.  

[00:05:25] Jonathan Wolf: I think that's gonna be a little shocking to many people looking at their fridge based on what we just said. 

So let's turn to meat substitutes now and maybe start with what's the reason why we might want to reduce our meat consumption in the first place? 

[00:05:36] Sarah Berry: We know that to prevent climate change, we need to be globally reducing the consumption of meat by 30%. So we know that we need to reduce animal-based products. but particularly meet, but we also know that some types of meat are bad for us. We know that processed meat. We know that red meat, for example, actually has unfavourable health effects on us.  

Now, a little bit in moderation, it doesn't have harmful effects, but if we're over-consuming these meats, they're bad for human health, bad for planetary health. 

[00:06:07] Jonathan Wolf: And so I guess the logical thinking is, well, I'm going to have this, you know, meat alternative that says like red meat or it's like chicken, but actually, it's made from a plant. Interestingly, I read that the CEO of the grocery chain, whole foods so that some of these plant-based meat alternatives were outright unhealthy, due to how processed they were.  

[00:06:28] Sarah Berry: So it's a bit more complicated than just that. I wouldn't say they're all healthy or all unhealthy. There are studies showing, interestingly that a higher avoidance of meat is associated with a higher intake of ultra-processed foods in many individuals, but there's huge variability in the dietary quality of these processed alternatives. 

So for example, many meat-based alternatives can be higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat. Which is good, but their salt content tends to be higher than the animal equivalent which is bad.  

[00:06:58] Jonathan Wolf: And you are thinking here about things that you can buy that are packaged as a meat alternative, and have been processed to sort of look and taste like meat, right? You're not saying, Hey, I swap out my meat and I replace it with a whole bunch more beans and other vegetables. Is that, is that what you're saying here?  

[00:07:17] Sarah Berry: Yeah. So I'm talking about these substitutes. So I'm talking about going to the supermarket and trying to find a plant-based burger, a plant-based sausage to put on your barbecue. 

For example, I'm not talking about replacing your traditional beef burger with a giant mushroom.  

[00:07:34] Jonathan Wolf: Got it. So looking at snacks on the shelf, if we see that little symbol that says it's vegan, Are you telling me that's not enough to determine if a snack is healthy because I think lots of people will say, Hey, you know, that means it's plant-based. And I keep hearing that I should be eating more plants so are you crushing their dreams, Sarah?  

[00:07:52] Sarah Berry: If we were talking a hundred years ago, I wouldn't be crushing the dream. I would say yes, it would be healthy because we'd be consuming mostly plant-based foods in their original state. But now, sadly I am, unfortunately, we know that just because it's got that vegan symbol on it just because it's plant-based doesn't mean it's healthy and that there are lots of added ingredients in it. 

The structure of the plant is often destroyed, which is also really important for health. So it's worth taking a closer look at the packaging. 

[00:08:24] Jonathan Wolf: Right then Sarah. So we've heard both sides of the argument here, and I'd love to get your verdict. Maybe let's start with the meat. First of all, meat substitutes.  

[00:08:32] Sarah Berry: So I think meat substitutes have a really important place for people that are transitioning from a meat-based diet. To a plant-based vegan and vegetarian diet. 

I think this is because ultimately we need to be able to eat the food that we are used to eating. And so if I was to go to a barbecue, I'm sorry, but I actually wouldn't want a burger that had just a tomato sliced up in it. I would want something that represents a typical burger  

[00:08:59] Jonathan Wolf: And a burger bun and just a tomato frankly said not could be very good for you either is it?  

[00:09:03] Sarah Berry: No. And I think it would taste pretty rubbish, you know? And so I think given that there is this increased awareness of planetary health and human health with moving away from particularly red meat. I think it's a really good way of enabling people to transition while maintaining the typical taste and the typical texture of foods that they're used to. 

And actually, a lot of these meat-based alternatives are very accessible and affordable. They're in nearly all mainstream supermarkets and often are cheaper than some of the original meat-based products.  

[00:09:37] Jonathan Wolf: I was in a fast food chain recently, and I was struck that they had all of these meat alternatives. 

These were still part of meals, which were incredibly unhealthy. So it was a meat alternative with chips and a highly processed burger bun. There was no plant or any fibre. And I think I could easily have come away with the idea, Hey, well, this was healthy. I was eating this plant-based meal. I think if you'd been wearing any of the continuous sugar monitors at the time from Zoe or any of these things, you'd have seen that this was really bad.  

[00:10:06] Sarah Berry: Yeah. I think we can think of it in a graded way. So we can think of it with the original meat-based products as being the least healthy, the substitutes, the plant-based substitutes, even if they are processed of being a little bit healthier, obviously than the meat-based products. And then the third and best option is obviously to go with the plants in their original form. 

[00:10:29] Jonathan Wolf: What about milk?  

[00:10:31] Sarah Berry: Okay. So personally I would opt for dairy milk. If I was choosing milk based on human health. If I was choosing milk based on planetary health, then I think this is where it gets a little bit more complicated and where it might be better to adopt plant-based milk.  

But I think that there's so much variability in the plant-based milks in terms of the ingredients, the added ingredients, the amount of fibre fat, and other nutrients in there that we can't package all plant-based milks together. 

[00:11:03] Jonathan Wolf: And I think lots of people would be surprised by that because I think most people already have sort of given up, when you say milk, you mean like full-fat milk, not processed milk that has become skimmed or semis skim. Is that correct? 

[00:11:14] Sarah Berry: So I'd refer to all three. And I know that lots of people are debating what's healthier. 

Is it the skimmed? Is it the semis skimmed or is it the full fat personally? I think based on the evidence that's out there, I'd categorize them. All as being moderately healthy.  

[00:11:29] Jonathan Wolf: Why can't I swap that for my oat milk? Like, why is it that you're saying that actually, you'd take the dairy milk over the oat milk for your health? 

[00:11:36] Sarah Berry: So it depends on the kind of plant-based milk that you're swapping it with. I think that the main issue I have with plant-based milk isn't necessarily that they're bad for our health, because I don't believe that they're inherently bad for our health. What worries me is that people are consuming these kinds of milk, thinking that they have wonderful health benefits. 

And I think that we need to caution people that, yes, they're not bad for health, but I don't think they're delivering quite the benefit that people think. 

[00:12:03] Jonathan Wolf: So ultimately, I think you're saying if you're adding this to your coffee, mainly worry about taste. And if you're thinking about health, then actually based upon the evidence we have today, you would be selecting cow's milk over one of these process milks. 

[00:12:16] Sarah Berry: Yes for health.  

[00:12:18] Jonathan Wolf: Brilliant. Well, thank you for helping us to demystify a particularly complicated topic today. And I hope that our listeners have learned something about, uh, substituting, both dairy and meat. If you'd be interested in understanding exactly the right answer for you, uh, then do give Zoe's personalized nutrition program. 

To understand how it can improve your health and manage your weight. And you can get 10% off by going to join I'm Jonathan Wolf.  

[00:12:45] Sarah Berry: And I'm Sarah Berry. 

[00:12:47] Jonathan Wolf: Join us next week for another ZOE podcast.