Your favourite brand of falafel may be meat-free but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you, according to the results of a new Australian study finding that some falafel products are riddled with salt.
A report from The George Institute for Global Health, VicHealth and the Heart Foundation, released today, analysed the salt content in more than 560 meat-alternative products on the shelves of four major Australian supermarkets from 2010 to 2019.
It found that over the past decade, the number of processed and packaged falafel products on sale have increased by 380 per cent. This broad selection of pre-made falafels varied greatly in salt content and 'healthiness', with products ranging from 300 mg of salt per 100 g to three grams of salt per 100 grams; the latter containing more than half an adult's daily recommended salt intake.
"What our research uncovers is that these meat-free products are still packaged and processed foods containing variable amounts of salt."
“There’s reason to be concerned because some of these meat-free products contain high levels of salt,” says the George Institute’s senior public health nutritionist and the report’s lead author, Clare Farrand.
“We often perceive these products to be healthier for us because they are meat-free plant-based alternatives. This is what is called the ‘health halo effect’.
“But they may not be healthier. What our research uncovers is that these meat-free products are still packaged and processed foods containing variable amounts of salt. So consumers need to check their nutritional labels and chose the option with the lowest sodium content if they want to choose a healthy option.”
A recent French study, published in the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition, backs up Farrand’s theory about health halos circling around meat-free products such as falafel, flavoured tofu and mock-meat alternatives.
The researchers considered whether the meat-free label on a product like a fast-food vegetarian burger made people assume it was low in calories. The authors found that it did. They concluded that vegetarian products are often perceived as being less caloric than their meat-based equivalents.
Why very salty plant-based foods aren't great
The World Health Organization recommends that adults have less than five grams of salt a day – across all meals, snacks and beverages consumed – to reduce blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and coronary heart attack.
The Australian Government’s Eat For Health recommendations advise that in order to stay within these daily limits, choosing foods containing less than 400 mg per 100 g is good and less than 120 mg per 100 g is best.
“We only need very little salt – less than one gram a day – for everything in the body to function as it should,” says Farrand. “Yet, across the world and in Australia, we consume an average of nine grams of salt a day.
“But the reality is that you may be unable to see or taste the salt in the processed or packaged products you buy.”
“We are not encouraging you to eat regular bacon or saying it is better for you because it’s not. We want people to eat a more plant-based diet but to do that by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and make more food from scratch at home.”
On average, the falafel products studied in the report contained the same amount of salt as meat-free sausages – around 1.3 g salt per 100 g. Flavoured tofu, on average, contained nearly 12 times more salt than plain tofu.
Meat-free bacon was found to be the saltiest offender of all the meat-free products, containing the highest average amount of salt: two grams salt per 100 g. However, when compared to traditional bacon, which has a Heart Foundation average salt target of less than 2.7 g per 100 g, meat-free bacon may still be a lower-salt option.
Farrand explains that the report does not compare meat and plant-based products, nor does it judge which one is best for health in relation to salt content. The report simply compares similar meat-free products and highlights the variations in salt content.
“We are not encouraging you to eat regular bacon or saying it is better for you because it’s not,” she says. “We want people to eat a more plant-based diet but to do that by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and make more food from scratch at home.”
Heart Foundation Victoria CEO, Kellie-Ann Jolly, adds that the growing number of Australians choosing to eat more plant-based foods is a positive move for health.
“But it is important that people focus on the quality and sources of plant foods, as some can be highly processed and lacking in nutrients,” Jolly says.
“Meat alternatives such as tofu and falafel can be good protein sources as part of a healthy balanced diet, but with any processed or packaged foods, it’s critical not to rely on words or images that make a product appear healthier than it is. Check the label and pick the less salty option.”