Vegetarian dishes not always as healthy as they appear, Hong Kong warns

Some plant-based burgers have even more sodium than their meaty counterparts, according to the Consumer Council.
PHOTO: Facebook

Vegetarian food might seem like a safe choice for a healthy meal, but some dishes – including those featuring plant-based meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers and sweet and sour “pork” – may contain more sodium and sugar than diners want, Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog has found.

In a collaboration with the Centre for Food Safety, the Consumer Council tested 99 samples covering 10 types of vegetarian dishes from local restaurants, finding that trendy vegetarian burgers were laced with a whopping 420mg of sodium per 100 grams on average.

That was 20 per cent more sodium than was found in actual beef burgers – although the meat dishes still had a higher fat and calorie content.

The centre’s principal medical officer, Henry Ng Chi Cheung, said that while most vegetarian dishes did not have a very high sodium content, some – such as the burger, a vegetarian “fish” fillet in corn sauce and assorted marinated meat substitutes – still contained considerable levels. The sodium content could be even higher, he added, if diners dipped the food into sauces.

“Our advice is consumers should tell the restaurant operators that they hope to have less salt added to their dishes, and ask to be given sauces in a separate container,” he said.

“They also have to be mindful of the size of the serving … After dining out for a meal, consumers should pay attention to the other two meals for the day, and choose dishes with less sodium, fat and sugar content.”

Dr Henry Ng speaks during an online press conference about vegetarian foods on Wednesday(Feb 17).
PHOTO: Facebook

Excessive sodium intake, he added, could lead to high blood pressure and raise the risk of other medical conditions, including strokes.

The 10 dishes tested by the council were the vegetarian fish fillet in corn sauce, assorted marinated meat substitutes, braised aubergine with vegetarian fish, Buddha‘s delight, Fujian fried rice with diced vegetarian meat, braised tofu, vegetarian sweet and sour pork, taro fish, a veggie burger and pasta with mixed mushrooms and truffles.

Topping all 99 samples in terms of sodium content was a serving of vegetarian fish fillet in corn sauce from Vegetarian New Generation in Tsuen Wan, with 510mg per 100 grams. That means just 100 grams of the dish would equate to more than a quarter of the WHO’s recommended daily sodium limit.

The restaurant told the Post it would adjust its recipe to improve its nutritional value.

As for sugar, researchers found the average content in vegetarian sweet and sour pork to be the highest, at 10 grams per 100 grams, and advised consumers to consider ordering the dish with the sauce on the side.

On its own, the sauce was found to be 14 per cent sugar by weight – almost reaching the threshold for “high-sugar”, defined by the centre as containing more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams of food.

The second-highest sugar content was found in the assorted marinated vegetarian meat, with 7.1 grams per 100.

Meanwhile, the study found the average total fat content of deep-fried taro fish and vegetarian fish fillet in corn sauce exceeded that of other dishes, with 17 and 13 grams of fat per 100 grams of food, respectively.

Ng said he would suggest the industry use healthier fats, such as corn oil, and avoid the use of coconut and palm oil.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.