The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.
It’s become such a pillar of so-called conventional wisdom that anything made from plant protein is automatically better-for-you than even the leanest cuts of meat or poultry that when an advocacy group criticizes the nutritional value of vegetarian foods it triggers genuine surprise.
Not only among those of us inured to the constant criticism of animal foods, but among the “enlightened” community of diet and health authorities, as well.
Mhairi Brown, a nutritionist with the British consumer advocacy nonprofit Action on Salt, told CNN that the results of her group’s recent survey of the salt content in veggie alternatives to meat were, quote, “quite surprising.”
Here’s why: Action On Salt found that brand-name shamburgers, all made from plant proteins (and also a host of gums, binders and flavorings), averaged almost 90 milligrams of salt per serving.
Ground beef typically averages about 75 milligrams per four-ounce serving, which, to do the math, is 16% less.
The Action On Salt group, which is based at Queen Mary University of London, reviewed 157 meat-free products from major retailers and found that 28% had higher salt levels than the guidelines set by Public Health England, that country’s equivalent to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Of course, the group noted that meat-free options are marketed as “healthier alternatives” to meat.
“People don’t tend to think [of] meat alternatives as an unhealthy product,” Brown told CNN. “But this ‘health halo’ is concealing quite high levels of salt.”
How much salt is too much?
So do the UK group’s findings constitute an actual scandal, a nutritional crisis du jour? That depends.
First of all, the reason that veggie analogs, as well as such prepared products as ravioli or canned soup, have high sodium levels is because processors extensively test their prototypes with focus groups. Inevitably, people prefer saltier choices. They just taste better, which makes sense: “salty” is one of the four basics taste sensations with which humans are hard-wired.
In that sense, you can’t blame the food industry for delivering what we consistently tell their marketers we prefer in terms of taste and flavor.
That said, high-salt diets have been shown in large-scale epidemiological studies to be associated with increased blood pressure, and thus a higher risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
As a result, Americans are hounded with “orders” to cut back on salt. USDA says no more than 2,300 milligrams (about three-quarters of a teaspoon) a day; the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics all recommend a maximum of only 1,500 milligrams a day.
By way of comparison, the Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon Burger all by itself checks in at 2,440 milligrams of sodium — and that’s not including the large fries that typically accompany the sandwich, a side order that add another thousand milligrams of sodium, putting that restaurant’s customer at more than double the optimal sodium intake.
And that’s just lunch.
However, in Great Britain, the national nutritional goal is to implement a maximum daily sodium intake for adults of 3,000 milligrams … by 2025.
Despite the discrepancy between the UK and the U.S. standards, both countries’ health authorities are focused — some would say fixated — on reducing salt intake.
Not surprisingly, the bottom line issue is the bottom line.
“Reducing salt is the most cost-effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease,” Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Salt, told CNN. “Given the vast amounts of strokes and heart disease that could be avoided and the huge savings to the NHS (National Health Service), it is incomprehensible that Public Health England [is] not doing more to reduce the amount of salt in our food.”
Based on the findings of a prominent nutritional advocacy group in your own country, here’s a suggestion to advance that goal, professor:
Skip the processed veggie products and head straight for the meat case.