Meat-free alternatives of the UK’s fast-food favourites can be more salty, sugar-laden and fatty, MailOnline can reveal.
Only McDonald’s plant-based option — the McPlant — appears healthier than its closest beef-based option, the famous Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
This website analysed the nutritional content of vegan burgers, sandwiches, wraps and sausage rolls available at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Nando’s and Greggs.
Plant-based options contained up to 30 per cent more salt — and up to half the recommended daily amount — 20 per cent more sugar and 60 per cent more fat than the original versions. One imitator wrap at Nando’s was found to be even more calorific.
A salt-heavy diet can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, while too much sugar can lead to weight gain. Consuming too much fat can raise cholesterol levels.
Britons are advised to eat no more than 6g of salt (around one teaspoon) and 30g of added sugar (approximately seven sugar cubes) each day.
Campaign group Action on Salt told MailOnline restaurants are hiding unhealthy dishes under ‘a vegan health halo’ but ‘continuing to drown us in salt and saturated fat just the same’.
Experts told MailOnline most foods are made in the way consumers like to eat them and the fast-food chains’ plant based dishes ‘are no exception and they should not be seen as some kind of health food’.
People following a plant-based diet — around three per cent of the population, or 2million people — should ‘look carefully’ at the nutritional content of vegan products, but those eating them occasionally for enjoyment ‘should do so without worry’, they insisted.
Meat-free alternatives of the UK’s fast-food favourites can be more salty, sugar-laden and fatty, MailOnline can reveal. Only McDonald’s plant-based option — the McPlant — appears healthier than its closest beef-based option, the famous Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The graphic shows the calorie, salt, sugar and fat content of the traditional and vegan options at each chain, with green indicating which product has a the lowest level, red signalling the higher figure and yellow meaning they are identical
Burger King’s plant-based Whopper contained 22 per cent more salt (0.5g) and 20 per cent more sugar (0.8g) than its traditional burger, which is made of beef.
However, the meat version — which, at £5.69, is £1 cheaper than its meat-free rival— had nearly 100 more calories and a third more fat.
KFC’s vegan burger, based on a ‘bespoke’ Quorn fillet, contains 42 per cent more salt (0.8g) and 0.2g extra sugar than its actual chicken alternative.
Although the poultry version has slightly more calories and fat. Both options cost £5.49.
Both Burger King and KFC’s meat-free burgers contain half of an adult’s daily recommended salt intake, even before sides are included.
The meatless meatball marinara sandwich at Subway had 17.6 per cent more salt (0.3g) than the beef version. But the traditional version, which also costs £7.59 for a footlong sub, had slightly more calories and fat.
Meanwhile, Nando’s ‘great imitator wrap’ — made of pea-protein strips that resemble chicken — contains 59 per cent more fat (8.7g), nine per cent more salt (0.2g) and six per cent more calories than the restaurant’s grilled chicken wrap.
However, the chicken version contained an extra 5g of sugar. Both wraps cost £6.95.
HOW MUCH SALT SHOULD I EAT?
Eating too much salt can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Adults should eat a maximum of 6g of salt per day.
Between 75 and 80 per cent of the salt people eat is in processed and convenience foods, such as sauces and meat.
For every gram of salt cut from Britons’ average daily intake, there would be 6,000 fewer deaths from strokes and heart attacks per year.
Most labels now give the amount of salt contained in food per portion.
Foods are considered to be low salt and have a green label if they contain less than 0.3g per 100g.
Products with medium salt levels have less than 1.5g per 100g, which is indicated through an amber label.
And products with high amounts of salt have a red label, meaning they contain 1.5g per 100g or 1.8g per portion.
At Greggs, the Quorn-based vegan sausage roll contains nearly a fifth more salt (0.3g) than the bakery’s original version and 1g sugar, while the meat version is sugar-free.
However, the pork pastry, which like the meat-free option costs £1.25, has 20 more calories and 4g of extra salt than the meat-free version.
McDonald’s McPlant burger, which includes a Beyond Meat patty, was the only vegan alternative that was healthier than the alternative Quarter Pounder, containing fewer calories, salt and fat, while the sugar content in both products was identical. Both meals cost £3.79.
Sonia Pombo, campaign manager at Action on Salt, told MailOnline: ‘It seems restaurants are looking for new ways to produce unhealthy dishes, this time hidden under a vegan health halo, but continuing to drown us in salt and saturated fat just the same.’
Companies’ health claims around plant-based products increases consumer perception that vegan options are healthier and prevents them from properly scrutinising them, she said.
Ms Pombo noted that salt in the vegan products are ‘completely unnecessary’ for functional reasons, so is just added for taste.
McDonald’s vegan product contains less salt than its meat version, while Gregg’s vegan sausage roll only contains slightly more salt than its original product ‘showing levels can be reduced’, Ms Pombo said.
She added: ‘Eating a more plant based diet can and should be beneficial for a number of reasons, but whatever your reasons for eating less meat, it is important to know a “plant-based” or “vegan” label does not automatically qualify a product as healthy.
‘It is time for restaurants and cafes to step up and start making food that is healthy for us and better for the planet.’
Professor Gunter Kuhnle, an expert in nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, told MailOnline the ‘big problem’ when creating plant-based food is creating a comparable taste to the original version, which adding salt and fat can help with.
But he said there is ‘not really a clear pattern’ showing that fast-food chain’s meat or vegan options are healthier than the other.
‘Apart from Nando’s, all plant products have fewer calories which might be good as consumers eat less but might also result in consumers consuming more as they don’t feel full,’ Professor Kuhnle said.
He noted the health benefits of a plant-based diet are due to vegans and vegetarians being ‘generally very health conscious and have a healthier lifestyle’.
‘There are some benefits to reducing meat intake – in large amounts, it can increase the risk of cancer and heart disease – but there are also clear benefits to meat in the diet – especially as a source of iron and B-vitamins,’ Professor Kuhnle said.
‘Some plant-based imitations are fortified with iron and B12, but not necessarily all, and consumers who are not aware of this – so switching to plant-based foods might have an adverse effect here,’ he said.
Professor Kuhnle added: ‘Most foods are made in a way that the consumer likes them – and these plant based foods are no exception and they should not be seen as some kind of health food.
‘People who want to follow a vegetarian (or vegan) diet for health reasons should really look carefully at their diet – also to make sure that they avoid deficiencies. Those who want to enjoy it should do so without worrying.’
A Burger King spokesperson said it is ‘committed to providing a wide range of menu options for guests to meet their individual nutritional needs’ and provides ‘clear nutritional information’ in store and on its website.
A spokesperson for KFC said it gives customers ‘clear nutritional information so they can make an informed choice about what they eat’.
A Nando’s spokesperson said: ‘We created the Great Imitator as a delicious, plant-based alternative for customers looking to either cut down the amount of meat they eat or reduce the carbon footprint of their food.
‘We display the nutritional breakdown of all our food on our website and at 568 calories, the Great Imitator wrap falls within Public Health England guidance on calorie consumption and is well under half the carbon footprint of meat-based alternatives.
‘Nando’s is committed to creating great tasting food for every diet and in addition to our world famous PERi-PERi chicken, we provide a variety of plant-based and meat-free options that taste amazing but also support our industry-leading initiatives to tackle climate change, following our introduction of science-based targets in 2020, becoming Carbon Neutral in 2021 and a new ambition to reach net zero in 2030.’
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide