Are Plant-Based Foods Really Healthier? A Two-Dimensional Evaluation of Nutritional Quality and Processing

February 26, 2024

The surge in popularity of plant-based diets and the subsequent rise in plant-based alternative products (PBAPs) have prompted a comprehensive study evaluating their nutritional quality and degree of processing. With a focus on 2,790 PBAPs available in Spain, this study challenges the widely held belief that plant-based alternatives are inherently healthier than their animal-based counterparts.

Nutrient Profiles and Processing:

The study classifies PBAPs into fifteen categories, including dairy products, cheese, fish, meat, and eggs, comparing them to their animal-based counterparts and unprocessed animal-based foods. Nutritional information, obtained from manufacturers, reveals variations in protein, sodium, saturated fat, and sugar levels. The study employs the Food Standard Agency Nutrient Profiling System (FSAm-NPS) score and the NOVA system to assess nutrient profiles and processing degree, respectively.

Contrary to general perception, the study uncovers evidence challenging the absolute healthiness of PBAPs. Plant-based cheese, for example, exhibits lower protein and higher sodium levels compared to its animal-based counterpart. The saturated fat content varies, with nut-based cheeses being lower and coconut butter-based ones being higher. Plant-based seafood, meat alternatives, and dairy alternatives show varying protein, saturated fat, and sugar content compared to animal-based products.

Processing and Health Implications:

Approximately 41% of PBAPs are classified as ultra-processed, reflecting the food industry’s emphasis on replicating the sensory appeal of animal-based products. Despite most PBAPs falling into Nutri-Score categories A and B (indicating healthier options), some are classified as processed and ultra-processed, emphasizing the need for a two-dimensional evaluation.

Key Outcomes from the studies

  1. Sodium Concerns in Plant-Based Meats: Significant variations in sodium content were found in plant-based meats, ranging from 1mg per 100g in tofu to 2,000mg per 100g in plant-based mince products. The trend suggested an increase in sodium levels over time.
  2. Calcium Fortification in Plant-Based Milks: 70% of plant-based milks audited were fortified with calcium, an improvement from a 2019-2020 audit where only 43% were fortified.
  3. Saturated Fat in Coconut-Based Milks: Coconut-based milks had up to six times higher saturated fat content than almond, oat, or soy milks.
  4. Cheese and Yoghurt Alternatives: The first study to identify the range of cheese and yoghurt alternatives available in Australian supermarkets. Only a third of plant-based yoghurts were labeled with calcium, and 20% met the recommended calcium content. For plant-based cheeses, most were not fortified with calcium, and sodium and saturated fat content varied widely.

Recommendations for Consumers before choosing plant based foods:

  1. Watch Sodium Levels: Opt for plant-based meat alternatives with around 150-250mg sodium per 100g.
  2. Choose Canned Legumes: Opt for canned legumes with no added salt.
  3. Tofu Selection: Choose unflavored tofu and add your own flavors with herbs and spices to avoid higher salt and sugar content in flavored tofu.
  4. Check Calcium in Non-Dairy Milk: Ensure non-dairy milk alternatives are fortified with at least 100mg of calcium per 100g.
  5. Consider Saturated Fat: Choose plant-based milk and yoghurt alternatives with lower saturated fat content, avoiding coconut-based options.


This groundbreaking study challenges the notion that plant-based alternatives are universally healthier. While many PBAPs share comparable nutritional profiles with their animal-based counterparts, their healthiness diminishes compared to unprocessed foods due to higher fat and salt content. The findings underscore the necessity for a nuanced approach to plant-based diets, emphasizing partial substitution or incorporating hybrid products. Consumers are encouraged to consider not only the environmental impact but also the nutrient density of plant-based alternatives for a balanced and sustainable dietary shift. As the popularity of plant-based diets grows, there is an opportunity for product developers to optimize nutrient density in PBAPs without compromising sensory appeal. Future research should focus on detailed dietary assessments, controlled clinical trials, and longitudinal studies to understand the long-term health implications of plant-based diets dominated by novel alternatives. Caution is advised in transitioning to plant-based diets using novel products, as the diversity within this emerging category demands careful consideration of nutrient intake for sustained health benefits.

In conclusion, this study calls for a more informed and nuanced approach to plant-based diets, considering both environmental sustainability and individual health needs.


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