Plant-based diets are often considered healthier alternatives to meat and dairy consumption: about one in five adopt this diet for health reasons.
The way of eating, which has increased in popularity by at least a third since 2017, can involve anything from giving up meat to going completely vegan, without eggs, milk or cheese.
However, these foods could be loaded with sodium, which could raise blood pressure, full of saturated fats that cause obesity, and stripped of bone-building calcium, a major analysis suggests.
The researchers evaluated more than 700 plant-based foods sold in supermarkets, including burgers, sausages, milk, cheese and yogurt, as well as vegan staples such as beans and tofu.
They found that just half a cup of tofu contained 2,000 milligrams of sodium, nearly the equivalent of an entire day, according to U.S. guidelines.
An analysis of 700 plant-based foods found that many were loaded with sodium and saturated fat, as well as lacking calcium.
Plant-based milk has long been touted as a healthier alternative to cow’s milk, although experts have warned it can be loaded with saturated fat.
Plus, trendy coconut milks were loaded with saturated fat, more than six times more than other dairy alternatives.
And more than 90 percent of the cheeses tested were not fortified with calcium, which is essential for growth and maintaining bone health.
“We found that some products are so high in salt or saturated fat that we would struggle to call them ‘healthy,'” the researchers wrote for The conversation.
However, the study was conducted in Australia and nutritional content may vary slightly in the US, where approximately one in 100 people claim to be vegan.
In 2022, the team visited two each of Melbourne’s four major supermarkets and collected nutritional information on plant-based meats, milks, cheeses and yoghurts.
In total, they analyzed 704 products. These included 236 meat substitutes, 169 legumes, 50 baked beans, 157 non-dairy milks, 52 cheese substitutes and 40 dairy-free yogurts.
The level of sodium in plant-based meats on grocery store shelves was found to have increased since 2019.
Among meat alternatives, the team noted that there were “large variations in their nutritional content.”
Sodium, however, was the “biggest concern.”
While some products had just one milligram per 100 grams (about half a cup), others totaled 2,000 milligrams for the same serving size. This is equivalent to almost two McDonald’s Big Macs.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in Australia limits it to 2,000.
“This means that we could consume all of our recommended daily sodium intake in a single bowl of plant-based ground beef,” the researchers wrote.
They compared the findings to a 2019 audit of 66 plant-based meat products in Australia, which found sodium increased by up to 1,200 milligrams per half cup.
“In other words, our audit results appear to show a consistent trend for plant-based meats to become saltier,” the team wrote.
They also looked at dairy-free cheese and yogurt. Only a third of yogurt products contained calcium in ingredient lists, and only 20 per cent met Australia’s recommended amount of 100 milligrams per 100 grams.
American health authorities recommend between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day.
Additionally, the team found that the vast majority of plant-based cheeses (92 percent) were not fortified with calcium.
Not getting enough calcium has been linked to several health problems, such as brittle nails, slower hair growth, and thin skin.
It can also increase the risk of osteoporosis, brittle or weakened bones.
Dairy-free cheeses also had between 390 and 1,400 milligrams of sodium per serving.
About a third of plant-based milks were not fortified with calcium.
But researchers warned that coconut milk, often used in curries, sauces and dressings, had on average six times more saturated fat than almond, oat or soy milk.
Diets high in saturated fat have long been linked to long-term health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes.
This is not the first time that nutrition experts have criticized plant-based milks.
Last year, a major A study by Stanford researchers presented at the American Society for Nutrition concluded that nine out of 10 of 233 dairy-free milks on the market were “nutritionally inferior” to cow’s milk.
Particularly alarming were the scientists’ findings about the amount of sugar that is added to milk alternatives to improve taste.
Cow’s milk, by comparison, is naturally a little sweet due to its natural sugar, lactose.
“Approximately one-third of plant-based dairy products have sugar or added sugar in amounts more similar to that of a strawberry or chocolate-flavored milk,” the researchers said.
Many plant-based milks are supplemented with bone-boosting calcium, but about a third are not, the study showed.
What’s more, they found that only 28 of the 233 drinks had as much or more protein, vitamin D and calcium than cow’s milk.
The new Australian study found that plant-based milks had about 100 milligrams less calcium than regular milk, the mineral essential for forming and repairing bone tissue.
Plant milks were also found to contain only two grams of protein per cup. One cup of Trader Joe’s low-fat milk has 14 g of protein.
The Australian research team recommended that vegans consume beans and legumes instead of meat alternatives.
Additionally, they suggested adding herbs and spices to the tofu instead of salt since it is already very salty.
The study was published Wednesday in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.