Not so long ago, 'plant-based eating' was a novel concept, and meat alternatives in a supermarket were limited to a small selection of Quorn mince or Linda McCartney sausages in the freezer.
Today you can find a 'plant-based' or 'vegan' claim on a dizzying array of food products, from lasagne, lollies and yoghurt to condensed milk, shredded cheese and schnitzels.
We take a look at the growth in the plant-based alternatives market, and what's behind it.
We also look at people's perception of plant-based labels on packaged food, how plant-based alternatives compare with their conventional versions and what to consider when buying packaged foods labelled 'plant-based' or 'vegan'.
The number of new plant-based products on supermarket shelves has visibly increased, but the category where this is perhaps most evident is plant-based meat alternatives.
Thomas King, CEO of independent think tank Food Frontier, tells CHOICE that its 2020 State of the Industry report shows that Australia's plant-based meat industry grew exponentially from 2019-2020, doubling its manufacturing revenue and jobs.
Australian supermarkets now offer more than 250 plant-based meat alternative products
"The number of new products in supermarkets like meat-free burgers, sausages and ready meals, also doubled in that time, with the category seeing 46% sales growth in retail," says King.
Australian supermarkets now offer more than 250 plant-based meat alternative products, "more than half of which are made by Australian companies", he says.
So what's behind this growth?
A huge range of plant-based meat alternatives are now available in supermarkets.
The majority (79%) of Australians consider themselves to be omnivores (eat food of both plant and animal origin), according to our survey.
A further nine percent consider themselves to be 'flexitarian' (eat a primarily vegetarian diet, but occasionally eat meat or fish) and three percent consider themselves pescatarian (eat fish, but not meat).
So although just five percent and two percent of Australians identify as vegetarian and vegan, respectively, it's clear there's a trend in this direction.
Health is the number one reason so many Australians are choosing to eat less meat
For many, the transition to a predominantly plant-based diet is fairly recent. More than half (55%) of those we surveyed who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet have been doing so for less than five years.
Even many people who aren't giving up meat altogether are cutting down. Last year, the University of Adelaide found that nearly one in five (19.8%) Australians were consciously reducing their meat consumption.
And according to a nationally representative survey by market research group Colmar Brunton, health is the number one reason so many Australians are choosing to eat less meat (closely followed by the environment, animal welfare, cost and increasing variety of plant-based options available in a four-way tie).
The wholesome-looking labels of plant-based foods – often in earthy tones of green or brown, sometimes with images of leaves – conjure up images of goodness.
Most of us aren't eating enough vegetables and legumes, so choosing products labelled 'plant-based' or 'vegan' may seem like a sensible option. And our survey found that almost half (46%) of Australians believe packaged foods labelled 'plant-based' are healthy. So are they?
What the research shows
In 2020, Food Frontier carried out a nutritional analysis of conventional processed meats and 95 plant-based meat alternatives.
"[This research] showed that, when compared like-for-like with conventional meat sausages, burgers, bacon and poultry (crumbed and un-crumbed), plant-based meat alternative products are on average nutritionally comparable or superior,"says King.
"For those Aussies seeking to reduce their meat consumption who still want a burger to throw on the barbeque – plant-based meats can serve as a healthier alternative."
When compared like-for-like with conventional meat sausages, burgers, bacon and poultry… plant-based meat alternative products are on average nutritionally comparable or superiorThomas King, CEO of independent think tank Food Frontier
Plant-based alternatives may contain more dietary fibre and lower saturated fat on average than equivalent conventional meat products, and be considered a healthier alternative. But bear in mind that we're talking about sausages, burgers, bacon and schnitzels – meats that global health authorities suggest everyone avoids, even if they don't follow a plant-based diet.
Some would argue that a sausage is still a sausage – a 'sometimes food' –- whether it's plant or meat based. And sugary confectionery is never going to be good for you, even if it's labelled 'vegan'.
Supermarkets also stock a variety of plant-based or vegan ready meals.
Eating more whole foods from plants – think fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds – is always going to be a healthier option than including more processed products in your diet, even if they're plant-based.
A key reason dietary guidelines recommend we include meat and certain dairy foods in our diets is because they offer beneficial amounts of nutrients. Meat, for example, gives you protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids, among other nutrients. And milk, yoghurt and cheese are a good source of many nutrients including calcium, protein, iodine and vitamin D.
Meat-free diets may need to be planned
Some of these nutrients can be harder to obtain from some vegetarian or vegan diets, and a bit more planning is required. So if you're replacing these foods entirely with plant-based alternatives, it's worth consulting a health professional such as an accredited practising dietitian, to make sure the alternatives you choose are suitable and give you a balanced diet.
A senate inquiry into the definitions of meat and other animal products was established in June this year by Nationals senator and former butcher Susan McDonald.
She was concerned that the Australian meat industry could be negatively affected by the plant-based food industry appropriating labelling terminology such as "meat" and "beef".
The ACCC said that it "has not received information that demonstrates that the labelling of plant-based substitute products is an issue causing consumer detriment"
To inform the process, Food Frontier reviewed the labelling of 252 meat alternatives sold in major supermarkets. It found that although about a third (34%) of products use an animal meat term in their product name, this term is modified in more than a quarter (26%) of products to indicate they're meat-free (e.g. 'beefy', 'chickenless', etc). The majority (89%) don't use animal depictions on the front-of-pack label.
In its submission to the inquiry, the ACCC said that it "has not received information that demonstrates that the labelling of plant-based substitute products is an issue causing consumer detriment".
The law is clear, says CHOICE
Erin Turner, CHOICE director of campaigns & communications, has this advice for consumers.
"The Australian Consumer Law is clear – companies can't mislead or deceive their customers," says Turner. "There are strong penalties in existing laws for companies that do lie to their customers.
"If you've seen a claim from any company that you think is misleading you can raise a complaint with the ACCC."
Plant-based processed foods are often more expensive than their meat-based alternatives.
One reason is that they may require unique ingredients to create a palatable texture or flavour, and those ingredients may be more expensive than those used in the alternatives. Different processing methods and facilities, lack of economies of scale, and extra supply-chain and distribution costs can also push up costs.
Whether it's for those reasons, or simply opportunistic marketing designed to appeal to plant-based-conscious consumers wanting to make a quick and easy decision, there's no shortage of examples of 'plant-based' or 'vegan' versions of near-identical foods that have premium price tags.
Nanna's regular fruit snack pies cost $0.89 per 100g, for example, whereas its 'vegan friendly' version costs $1.78 per 100g.
Chris’ regular guacamole dip costs $1.75 per 100g whereas its plant-based version is $2.00 per 100g.
The Natural Confectionery Co. Fruit Salad Soft Jellies cost $1.67 per 100g, whereas the vegan alternative costs $2 per 100g.
And Nestlé Milo costs $1.52 per 100g whereas its plant-based version costs $1.77 per 100g.
The plant-based revolution has even led some companies to bring out a 'vegan'-labelled product (with associated price hike) when a plant-based version existed already.
For instance, Praise 99% Fat Free Traditional Mayo (which is suitable for vegans) costs just $0.90 per 100g whereas Praise Vegan Mayo costs $1.25 per 100g.
CHOICE surveyed 1096 Australians on a range of topics, including plant-based eating, between 15 and 29 March 2021.
The data has been weighted to make sure it is representative of the Australian population according to the 2016 ABS Census data on age, state, sex, household income and education.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.