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How healthy are meat substitutes?

Many consumers are reducing their meat consumption for reasons of animal welfare, environmental protection and health, but do not want to do without the taste of meat. As a result, the demand for meat substitutes is increasing. Demand rose by 37% between 2019 and 2020. Supermarket shelves are therefore increasingly stocking plant-based products as an alternative, such as sausages, nuggets, mince or burger patties.

What are meat substitutes?

Meat substitutes are foods that resemble meat in terms of consistency, taste, texture and protein content. However, the term meat substitute not only includes highly processed industrial products, but also protein-rich plant products such as tofu, tempeh and seitan. Meat substitutes can make it easier to switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet.

What are meat substitutes made of?

The main ingredient in meat substitutes is primarily soy and wheat, but peas, lupin, hen's egg, milk and various combinations of these are also frequently used. Note, therefore, that not all meat substitutes are purely plant-based.

How healthy are meat substitutes?

It is well known that tofu, tempeh and seitan are great meat alternatives, as their protein content is comparable to that of animal products. The taste and consistency are also very similar to meat. These meat substitutes also contain many important vitamins and minerals, all essential amino acids and phytochemicals.

But what about industrially processed products? How healthy they are depends on the respective ingredients.

Why meat substitutes are better than meat

A 2017 study by the Albert Schweitzer Foundation compared 80 vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives with 27 meat-based products from organic and conventional farming. From fried and boiled sausages, nuggets, gyros and sliced meat to fillets, burgers, steaks, schnitzel, lyonnaise and salami, all of these products were closely scrutinized.

The pleasing result: the meat substitutes perform better than the meat products in many respects.

Meat alternatives contain more protein

It was interesting to note that the meat alternatives - whether salami, schnitzel or steak - often contained more protein than the meat products: Over half of the vegan organic alternatives had the highest protein content. The protein quality was comparable with the meat-containing products.

Fewer additives in meat-free organic products

Meat substitute products are often criticized for containing a lot of added substances. Of course, an industrial process is necessary to achieve the desired factors such as taste, consistency and appearance. Nevertheless, the additives in meat substitutes are for the most part completely harmless, such as anthocyanins and carotenes as colorants in sausage, magnesium chloride as a coagulant for tofu and pectin and locust bean gum as thickeners to make the substitute sausage sliceable.

However, the study was unable to confirm the large amount of additives contained. This is because the meat-free organic products contained no added flavorings and fewer additives than the comparable meat products. What many people may not want to admit: Sausages also have to be elaborately produced from meat and numerous spices, preservatives, flavorings and curing salt. Meat is not eaten raw and unseasoned.

However, the meat substitutes from conventional production scored worse than the organic products and meat products in terms of additive content.

Less fat and saturated fatty acids in meat substitute products There were no major differences in the calorie content of any of the products tested. In general, the calorie content of almost all products was medium to high. Only the vegan products had a slightly lower energy content.

However, the total fat content of the meat products was higher than that of the vegan or vegetarian products. There were clear differences in saturated fatty acids in particular: While two thirds of the meat-free products were rated as "good", the result for the products containing meat was the exact opposite: only 12% achieved good values, with around two thirds containing too many saturated fatty acids.

However, the substitute products did not score well in the salt content category. Both the meat alternatives and the meat products contained too much added salt.

In general, the same applies to substitute products: The less processed the products are, the better. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at the list of ingredients.


If you eat a healthy and balanced diet, there is nothing to be said against a moderate consumption of meat substitutes. Especially if they replace meat products, as meat alternatives are naturally healthier and more environmentally friendly. They mainly provide high-quality vegetable protein and less total fat and saturated fatty acids than meat products. If you want to eat as few additives as possible, you should choose organic products.

Nevertheless, it is advisable to take a look at the ingredients list beforehand to select products with less salt (less than 1.5 g / 100 g), a lower fat content and fewer additives.

Pulses such as lentils or chickpeas are also good meat substitutes and are a better alternative. These, as well as less processed foods such as tofu, can be included in your daily diet.