Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Salt content on the rise in vegetarian menu options

Sodium levels in meat-free dishes are increasing, as the consumer trend towards plant-based diets continues.

The amount of salt and unsaturated fat in vegetarian fast food items is rising at a time when consumers are increasingly choosing meat-free options, research shows.

Monitoring the nutritional value of vegetarian, plant-based or vegan dishes in restaurants could help to limit the health risks to consumers, according to the study from Harvard University and the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security.

Food being served

Nutrient comparisons

Researchers studied details of menu options for 36 fast food chains in the US between 2012 and 2018, using data from a public health database, MenuStat.

Vegetarian items were found to be healthier in some ways, such as having lower calories, saturated fat and sodium compared with their meat equivalents, but the amount of salt contained in vegetarian items has increased year on year.

Some vegetarian items were found to contain more salt than the similar meat dishes, and vegetarian options overall contained more sugar than similar non-vegetarian items.

The findings are observed at a time when one in four Americans say they are seeking to eat less meat for health or environmental reasons, and the restaurant industry reports increased demand for plant-based, vegetarian and vegan menu options.

Influencing choice

Previous studies have suggested that increasing the proportion of vegetarian items on menus may impact on consumer choice, but the latest study shows this has not yet taken place. Vegetarian items consistently accounted for about one in five items on offer during the period studied.

Researchers suggest that further research could examine why people opt for vegetarian dishes, and devise strategies to shift dietary intake towards healthy choices, without loss of sales.

Findings were published in the Journal of the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Consumer demand for meat-free options on menus is increasing in the US and this may be mirrored in other Western countries. Given that vegan does not necessarily equate with healthy, it would be a good idea for public health bodies to monitor the nutrient composition of take-away and other restaurant foods.

Dr Lindsay JaacksGlobal Academy of Agriculture and Food Security

Despite increasing consumer demand for vegan and vegetarian options and an increase in the overall number of these items, the proportion of vegetarian options has remained relatively unchanged. Some research suggests that increasing the proportion of vegetarian offerings may play a key role in impacting consumer behaviour.

Dr Caroline G. DunnResearch Associate, Health Policy and Management, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

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