Is plant-based meat really all that good for you? Researchers issue health warning

It sounds healthy, but is plant-based meat really all that good for you?

Well, researchers say much of it is highly processed, prompting calls for a health star rating system on all alternative meats.

Free of animal products - think vegan mince, sausages and burger patties - there are plenty of people giving plant-based meats a go.

"I think the whole plant-based movement has come from the climate crisis - we're seeing a lot of young people embrace the whole plant-based thing," certified nutritionist Nikki Hart told Newshub.

But while meat alternatives might be great for the planet - and animals - the latest University of Auckland research says they might not be so good for us.

"They've gone through a lot of processing to look like burgers and sausages, that type of thing. Salt is often added - well, salt is always added in this kind of process," said report co-author Sally Mackay.

The researchers sampled 201 legume options and alternative meat products: falafel mix had the highest amount of energy, while baked beans had the lowest - but also the lowest amount of protein.

Meat-free sausages didn't fare well either, with high levels of sodium and saturated fats, whereas tofu was an excellent all-rounder.

But it's the can in a tin - or dried lentils in a bag - that really put the meat alternatives to shame.

Part of the assessment was identifying the health star rating. It grades foods from 0.5 to 5 but worryingly, when it came to meat alternatives, that was easier said than done.

"Most of them did not have a health star rating on the pack, so we had to estimate it. So that's a point in itself, we would really like to see more manufacturers put the health star ratings on the labels," Mackay said.

Certified nutritionist Nikki Hart agreed.

"I think we need that - and it's really about saying to the consumer 'you can still trust these stars'. And we really want them above 3.5 stars if we can," she said.

Once researchers had estimated the health star ratings, legumes beat meat alternatives hands down.

"One in 10 had a health star rating of at least 3.5. With the legumes, nine out of 10 had a health star rating of 3.5  or higher," Mackay said.

While lentils and beans have come out on top, it's not the end of the road for lovers of plant-based proteins.

"Everything in moderation. Let's be realistic - not all of us have time to cook a meal from scratch," Mackay said.

"If you take the fake meat product and put it with some whole grains and bump it up with fruit and veggies, then that's okay," Hart said.

A guilty pleasure every and now then - guilt-free in more ways than one.