But, that could change if animal protein producers voluntarily revealed the entire nutrition profile of their products rather than stopping short by listing on the Nutrition Facts panel only what the US Department of Agriculture requires, said Kris Sollid, a registered dietitian and senior director of nutrition communications at IFIC.
He hypothesized that the longer list of vitamins and minerals listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of the newer plant-based meats compared to animal meat could lead consumers to perceive the former as more nutritious.
He based this on findings from IFIC’s recent survey of 1,000 US adults that looked at their perceptions of the newer plant-based meats that are designed to mimic the taste and texture of animal protein.
The survey assessed potential differences in consumers’ health perceptions of plant-based alternatives to animal meat and animal meat by showing participants two Nutrition Facts labels simply labeled as “Product A,” which displayed the nutritional information – but not the ingredients – of a popular brand of ground plant meat, and “Product B,” which displayed the nutrition information minus the ingredient list from a package of 85% lean, grass-fed 100% ground beef.
Based just on these images, 45% of participants believed Product A – the plant-based option – to be healthier than Product B – the ground beef, while only 25% believed the plant-based option was less healthy, according to the survey results.
These results are notable given the plant-based option had 30 more calories, 2 grams more saturated fat, 305 more mg of sodium and 4g less protein than the animal protein. It also had 3g dietary fiber and zero cholesterol compared to the animal protein’s zero dietary fiber and 60 mg of cholesterol.
“It’s hard to know exactly what about the Nutrition Facts label influenced opinions the most,” but “it’s quite possible that the relative length of the vitamins and minerals played a role,” Sollid said, noting that while both labels followed regulatory requirements, the plant-based option listed eight additional nutrients beyond the four listed on the ground beef.
“The discrepancy in micronutrients might have been too much for some people to ignore,” he added.
He noted that animal protein manufacturers could counter this by listing the full vitamin and mineral content allowed – but not required – to be on the Nutrition Facts label per 9 CFR 317.309(c)(8)(iv).
Nutrition Facts trump ingredient lists
When survey participants were shown the products' ingredient lists, in addition to the Nutrition Facts panel, there was little change in their health perception of each product – even though the plant-based option had a significantly longer list, which other research has suggested is a turnoff for consumers.
According to this survey, 40% of participants thought Product A, the plant-based option, was either much healthier or somewhat healthier than Product B, once they viewed the ingredient list. Whereas 29% though Product A was either “much unhealthier” or “somewhat unhealthier” than Product B.
“If you’ve followed food conversations over the past decade then you’ve likely heard disparaging references toward packaged foods and their ingredients – statements like, ‘If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it,’ or ‘look for foods with five ingredients or less,’” Sollid said.
While he acknowledged that statements like these are not clinically or scientifically meaningful, he noted they do resonate with some people. For example, he said, IFIC’s most recent annual Food & Health Survey found that people perceive products with shorter ingredient lists to be healthier than products with longer lists.
While this may be the case, he added, the current survey of plant alternatives to meat suggests the Nutrition Facts panel is more influential than the ingredient list for determining healthfulness – a finding that reinforces the idea that animal protein manufacturers should leverage the Nutrition Facts panel, rather than rely on its shorter ingredient deck.