As plant-based ideologies and veganism is on the rise, so is the production of plant-based alternatives to meat products. From burgers, meatballs and mince to imitations of chicken and pork, these alternatives provide a route for many people to enjoy the flavours they love in plant-based meals. But many of these foods are also ultra-processed and can have negative health impacts if people consume them often. While ultra-processed foods certainly aren’t limited to vegan alternatives, it’s important to understand what they are before eating them on a regular basis.

What are fake meats?

Known by a variety of names including vegan meat, plant-based meat and synthetic meat, fake meats are foods that are made to look and taste as similar to real meat as possible without actually using any meat—although some fake meats are made using other animal products like egg and dairy. They’re typically made by extracting the protein from plants like pea, soy and mushrooms. To make them taste and look like meat they also tend to include a lot of additives like colouring agents and chemically refined coconut oil. This makes them ultra-processed. Lab-grown meat, which is made by growing an individual animal cell into a piece of meat, is also being explored but isn’t yet available to consumers.

Ultra-processed foods

Most fake meat options available are ultra-processed, but what does this mean? This is a little complicated but, at its simplest, ultra-processed means that a food has been significantly changed from its natural state. Unprocessed, or minimally processed, foods may have slight alterations like boiling, freezing or cutting so they’re able to be stored and are safe to eat. These would include things like apples or raw, unsalted nuts. These become processed when a few other substances are added like salt or oil. What makes something ultra-processed, however,  when there are lots of additional ingredients like salt, fat and preservatives. They’re often made by extracting substances from foods, such as fats and starches, and combining these with additives like preservatives. Ultra-processed foods include frozen meals, fast food, soft drinks, and many fake meats. Importantly, a 2011-12 study found that Australian’s get 42% of their energy intake from ultra-processed foods. If you’re vegan or rely on lots of vegan alternatives to animal products, this percentage may be even higher.

Are they healthy?

When planned well it’s been found that plant-based diets come with a range of health benefits, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that plant-based meats are healthier than real meat. This also depends on the particular brand of fake meat that you’re eating, but there are some things that can be considered. For example, plant-based meat substitutes found in Australian supermarkets generally had lower kilojoules and saturated fat, and higher levels of carbohydrates, sugars and fibre than meat. When it comes to nutrition, though, high sodium levels were a concerning trend and, interestingly, less than a quarter of fake meats had added B12, something that is often lacking in vegan diets.

On top of this, it’s important to consider the health implications of ultra-processed foods. Research has indicated that consumption of ultra-processed foods can lead to weight gain, ‘obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cardiometabolic risks.’ However, there is little research into how this may differ in the context of a vegan diet.

The health advice

While the rise of plant-based alternatives have made it much easier for people to adopt plant-based and vegan diets, the consensus seems to be that our intake of ultra-processed foods, and therefore alternative meats, should be significantly reduced. Considering ultra-processed foods dominate the available meat alternatives (and even the rest of our food choices), this would be understandably difficult for many. But the advice stands that while completely removing it from one’s diet is unrealistic, it’s a good idea to swap it out for more fresh and low-processed options wherever possible.


So, if the health advice is to choose fresh, low-processed foods over ultra-processed options, what can you do to replace that meat craving without opting for the real thing or an ultra-processed imitation? While they might not be exactly the same, there are many options that, when cooked the right way, can be a great meat replacement. Let’s take a look at some of our favourites:

  • Tofu – Outside the plant-based community tofu gets a bad rap, but that’s just because many people don’t know how to cook it. With the right flavours and cooking techniques, it can absolutely satisfy that meat craving.
  • Jackfruit – When cooked, the texture of jackfruit is similar to pulled pork, making it excellent in sandwiches and tacos.
  • Mushrooms – There are many different types of mushrooms and, while delicious in their own right, some, like shiitake mushrooms and chicken of the woods, have naturally meaty flavours. But even normal mushrooms can replace meat with some creative cooking techniques.

So, when it comes down to it, more research is needed to identify if plant-based meats are healthier than their real counterparts. However, if you’re wanting to avoid meat for ethical or environmental reasons, plant-based alternatives can be a good way to curb those cravings. Where possible, though, opt for less processed options like tofu, jackfruit and mushrooms.

We also advise experimenting wherever possible. Plant-based foods are incredibly varied and there are plenty of different dishes, flavours and ingredients to try. If you’re struggling to think of meal ideas or don’t have the time to shop, vegan meal kits like VegMeUp can be a good solution. We have a wide range of easy, tasty plant-based meals made using lots of healthy, natural ingredients.

With Love,