Test Reveals High Sodium in 60% of Vegetarian Meat Samples 1 Sample Detected Animal Genes Disparity in All Nutrition Labelling Requires Immediate Improvement

15 August 2019
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Test Reveals High Sodium in 60% of Vegetarian Meat Samples  1 Sample Detected Animal Genes  Disparity in All Nutrition Labelling Requires Immediate Improvement

Vegetarian diet conjures up an image of pure light healthy food. However, a Consumer Council test on 35 prepackaged vegetarian meats has found various problems, including 60% of them belonging to “high sodium” food, and none fully complying with the technical guidance of the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) requirements on nutrition labelling – in the most serious sample, the actual total fat content exceeded its claim value by as many as 8 times. Moreover, the test found genes of swine and fish in 1 vegetarian meat sample, 3 “lacto-vegetarian” samples detected egg ingredient, 6 samples contained preservatives but were not displayed on their ingredient list. The Council stressed that erroneous labelling could possibly result in misleading consumers, in particular, vegetarians or chronic patients into consumption of either unsuitable food or food with insufficient or too much nutrients. Moreover, the disparity between the declared and actual values may as well constitute a contravention of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. Manufacturers must exercise immediate rectification of any disparity without delay so as to safeguard the consumer health.

Vegetarian meat products are synthetic foods made with a variety of ingredients. Vegetarians, for reasons of religion or vegan diet, should pay extra attention in their choice of food. Currently the legislation in Hong Kong governing food products does not provide a clear definition for “vegetarian” or “meatless” products and may contain egg or dairy ingredients from animal sources, therefore they may not be “vegan”. Moreover, vegetarians who rely on vegetarian meat for protein should be cautious, the test found the protein content in 3 vegetarian seafood samples to be generally low; in 1 sample labelled 2.3g protein per 100g, its protein content turned out to be actually 0g.  

Included in the 35 tested samples were 4 vegetarian meat ball, 8 vegetarian ham/sausage, 7 vegetarian soy meat/chops/patty, 9 vegetarian poultry, and 7 vegetarian seafood, all labelled to be contained with soy or soy-related ingredients. The test focused on animal gene and ingredients detection, preservatives and nutrient contents, and nutrition labelling on the packaging to see if the nutrient values matched with the test results. 

Animal Genes and Preservatives

The test result revealed animal genes and animal derived ingredients in 12 samples, and disparity between the claims and test results in the content of 4 of the samples. In 1 sample labelled “ovo-lacto” (milk/egg ingredients), animal genes of swine and fish were found. 3 other samples labelled “lacto” (milk ingredient) were detected with egg ingredient. 8 other samples were also detected with egg ingredient, but this was not clearly stated in 3 samples. It is believed that manufacturers had used animal derived condiments or ingredients, or egg white for adhesive purpose, or the production line was cross-contaminated by animal derived materials. The Council stressed that food producers bear the responsibility to ensure vegetarian meat products do not contain ingredients of animal genes or animal sources, other than egg or dairy ingredients, and should use an independent production line and the choice of plant-based condiments to safeguard the expectation and the needs of vegetarians.

None of the samples provided any information on preservatives on the ingredient list. The test, however, detected the presence of preservatives in 6 samples among them, of which 3 were detected with the preservative benzoic acid while sorbic acid was found in the remaining 3 samples which is not permitted under the legislation for soy protein powder and its mixture. Among these 3 samples containing preservative sorbic acid, 1 was labelled with “no preservative” claim on its packaging. The Council has referred the findings to the Centre for Food Safety for follow up.

Sodium and Total Fat Content

Test findings indicated that, vegetarian diet is not equivalent to healthy eating. Nearly 60% (20 samples) belonged to the “high sodium” food category (i.e. exceeding 600mg sodium per 100g), ranging from 645mg to 855mg and including all the vegetarian meat ball and 90% (7 samples) of vegetarian ham/sausage samples. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation, an adult of a daily intake of 2,000kcal, should limit the daily sodium intake to under 2,000mg.  In the case of the vegetarian grilled eel sample with the highest sodium content, consuming a half pack (100g) will reach near 43% of the daily sodium limit.

Two samples were in the “high fat” food category (i.e. exceeding 20g total fat per 100g). The WHO recommendation for an adult of a daily intake of 2000 kcal, is to limit the daily total fat intake to under 66g. Similarly, based on the vegetarian mutton sample with the highest total fat content, consuming near half pack (100g) will reach nearly 40% of the daily total fat limit.

Nutrition Labelling

The Council found 1 sample to be without nutrition labelling on its packaging, while in the rest 34 samples, at least 1 value on each of their nutrient labelling were shown to be at variance with the test values, with 1 sample had as much as 6 values not accurate. The disparity was most serious in carbohydrates, 80% (28 samples) of the samples were lower in their actual carbohydrate content than their claims by over 20%. 14 samples also exceeded the guidance requirements in total fat; in the worst sample, the discrepancy revealed the product to actually contain fat over 8 times (833%) than the declared value. As for the other nutrients in the samples – saturated fatty acid in 16 samples, sugars in 8 samples, energy in 7 samples and protein in 7 samples – their discrepancies between the actual test values and claim values all exceeded the tolerance limit in CFS guidance. Of particular concern were of contrary to the zero-gram (0g) claim by 6 samples and 2 others in respect of sugars and saturated fatty acid, the actual test results were more than 0.5g of sugar and saturated fatty acid per 100g. Such practice is totally unsatisfactory.

Though there is currently insufficient evidence to substantiate genetically modified (GM) food is harmful to health, some people are concerned that GM food may cause allergic reactions. Among the 15 samples claiming on the packaging with non-GM soybean ingredients or with approved trademarks of vegetarian organisations, 2 were detected with small amount of GM soybean ingredients. The manufacturers concerned are urged to take immediate remedial action to label the product anew and improve their products.

The test results reflected clearly that the industry needs immediate improvement in the choice of recipes and ingredients, the food manufacturing process and quality control. Consumers, on the other hand, should heed the following in the purchase or consumption of prepackaged vegetarian meat products:

- Even if the packaging is labelled with wordings of “vegetarian” or “meatless”, it is possible that it may contain egg or dairy ingredients of animal source, and may not be “vegan” food;

- Choose products with complete intact food labelling, read the descriptions and recipes, as well as the nutrition labels on the packaging carefully to ascertain if the products may contain egg or other dairy ingredients and they are suitable vegetarian meat products;

- Pay attention to the serving size, minimise “high sodium” and “high fat” products.  Refrain from using additional condiments in cooking to avoid excessive intake of sodium and fat posing health risks in long term;

- Vegetarian meat as frozen food should be stored in -18°C. Once the food is defrosted, take note of the expiry period, for instance, thawing it out in fridge at 4°C, the best quality period may last only 1 to 2 days, and consume right away if cook by microwave. 

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