Are Meat Substitutes Healthy? What You Should Know Before Buying
Maybe it was a celebrity sharing that she's a fan of the vegan diet. Perhaps it was your cousin raving that her oat milk latte tastes like the real thing. Or it could have been the billboard you've driven past advertising a new plant-based burger at a nearby fast-food joint. If plant-based eating has piqued your interest, you're not alone. While the number of Americans who identify as vegan or vegetarian hovers around 6% to 8% of the population (a stat that hasn't significantly budged in decades), more people than ever are calling themselves flexitarian. That is, they follow a mostly plant-based diet but occasionally eat meat and dairy. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, flexitarians now represent more than one-third of all U.S. adults and more than half of adults ages 24 to 39.
The reasons to eat more plant-based foods are compelling, whether you're concerned about your health, the environment, or animal welfare. And add to that list the fact that you have more convenient plant-based food and drink options available than ever before.
You can now buy plant-based cheeses that melt, bubble, and stretch like cheddar should. You can sip on creamy coffees, down spoonfuls of yogurt, and dig into cartons of delicious ice cream that don't contain a drop of dairy. You can make a not-from-the-sea tuna sandwich and scramble up non-eggs. And plant-based burgers that sizzle and look just like the real thing? There are no fewer than 30 different brands to try, with boastful names like the Beyond, Impossible, and Awesome Burgers leading the charge.
Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?
The explosion of new plant-based meats has many asking if they are healthier. We're not talking black bean burgers or tofu—the meat alternatives that have been around for many decades. What you want to know is if those beef-looking crumbles, faux breakfast sausages, fake chicken strips, and burger substitutes that "bleed" when you cook them are actually a better nutritional choice.
Many people are flipping over packages or perusing websites to review the nutrition information and ingredient lists. The words listed don't really reflect the produce aisle. Where are the plants?
"We are witnessing a split in the marketplace around two very different approaches to eating more plant-based foods," says Kate Geagan, RD, author and sustainable food expert. "The great debate happening right now is whether these highly processed plant-based meats fall under the 'processed foods' category (associated with negative health outcomes) or the 'plant foods' category (which are associated with superior health outcomes)."
Though the base of plant-based meats is a plant (usually soybeans, peas, and/or wheat), these ingredients have been highly processed. In most cases the main ingredients are stripped down to high-protein, low-fiber, colorless powders mixed with preservatives, oils, natural or artificial coloring, gums, and seasonings. In an analysis of the 20 top-selling pre-formed plant-based burger patties at grocery stores conducted by New Hope Network in 2019, plant-based burgers contained an average of 17 ingredients with some containing as many as 27. Here are some things to consider as you seek to answer the question "Are plant-based meats healthy?"
Plant-Based Meat: The Pros
Though plant-based meats are made from a lot of processed ingredients, they are better for the environment and animal welfare, and they often taste a lot like meat.
"Despite subtleties, we know beyond a reasonable doubt that beef has an outsized carbon footprint relative to every alternative," says Dr. David Katz, founder of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. "To the extent that meat alternatives are actually alternatives to beef, it benefits the environment. A big overall advantage to meat alternatives, even ultra-processed ones, is in the environmental impact column."
Since plant-based meats are vegetarian or vegan, "we may safely conclude that these products are a whole lot kinder and gentler to our fellow creatures than meat," says Katz.
"That said, there is at least one notable caveat in this category. Soy—commodity, GMO soy at that—is a primary ingredient in [the majority of plant-based meats], and industrially produced soy displaces and disrupts rich ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and the American Midwest. So while these products reliably spare domestic animals, implications for wildlife are less definitive. Still, we may reliably give meat alternatives a huge advantage in the animal ethics column," Katz continues.
Tastes like Meat
A third plus for new plant-based meats is that they taste a lot like meat, which is exactly what manufacturers are trying to achieve. In a One Poll Study, 68% of participants said they'd be willing to swap meat for a plant-based alternative if it tasted the same as meat. Alternatively, 47% of participants in the same poll said they're hesitant to try plant-based meats because they don't think it will taste like meat. In this respect, huge strides have been made to mimic a juicy, savory, meat-eating experience.
Some Heart Health Promise
But is fake meat healthy for you? A recent small study printed in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that participants who swapped two or more servings per day of animal meat for plant-based meat for eight weeks had lower levels of TMAO (a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) and lower LDL cholesterol. The study also showed that fiber consumption was higher and saturated fat consumption was lower when eating plant-based meat instead of animal-based meat. More and larger studies are needed to determine if these benefits would last long term for someone who eats a lot of processed plant-based meats.
Though plant-based meats still contain saturated fat, they contain far less saturated fat than animal meat on average. Plant-based meats also contain some fiber and plenty of protein, if not just as much protein as animal-based meats.
Plant-Based Meat: The Cons
"Just because something is 'plant-based' doesn't mean it's automatically healthy, or automatically better for you," says Geagan. "Reams of research points to the power of plant-forward diets to unlock health and vitality in humans. However, we are in a moment where the food industry is taking advantage of the plant-based trend, and unfortunately, many of these foods are made from highly refined and processed ingredients."
Processing Removes Plant Nutrients
Because of their processed nature, plant-based meats don't provide a plethora (or sometimes any) of the nutrients that make whole plant foods so good for you, such as significant amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, monounsaturated fats and polyphenols.
Plant-based meat alternatives often contain more sodium than animal meats—in some examples up to six times more—and some of them contain added sugars, artificial coloring, and controversial additives like carrageenan and methylcellulose, which are bulking agents.
High Price Tag
These products can also be quite expensive," says Geagan. "Check the price and make sure it doesn't mean you are compromising other healthy foods." According to the New Hope Network research, plant-based burgers range from $0.50 to $4.00 per patty.
Shopping for Plant-Based Meats
Though plant-based and vegan don't mean the same thing, people sometimes assume they do. But not all plant-based meats are vegan. Some of them contain eggs, cheese, or milk, so check the ingredients if you're looking for a 100% plant-based food.
If GMO soy is a concern, look for products that are labeled organic or Non-GMO Project Verified. If refined oils are a concern, look for products that indicate the oil is sustainably sourced, organic, or expeller pressed.
Some nutrition parameters that indicate a better choice are products that have no added sugars, 2 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 575 milligrams of sodium per serving.
A Healthier Plant-Based BurgerGet the Bean Burger Recipe
If the ultimate goal in selecting plant-based meat is better health, then consider these products and ideas a path that could get you there.
"If you actually like eating plants, eat the real items, and get some good recipes," advises Katz who says your taste buds can be trained to love more of the foods that love you back. "If you don't like eating plants, and the only way you'll eat less meat is if plant-based foods impersonate it effectively, then plant-based meat alternatives are for you. Ideally they will serve as a gateway to ever less processed, plant-based eating." The idea is that plant-based choices will lead to healthier plant-based choices going forward.
Some new plant-based products are of the lower-tech variety, like Actual Veggies burgers. While they won't make you think you're eating beef, they are thick, flavorful, and made from plant-based foods you'd recognize. Co-founder Jason Rosenbaum stopped eating meat for health reasons and gravitated toward Beyond and Impossible Burgers. But, after seeing how processed they were, he decided he might be defeating his health goals.
Another step forward is making your own plant-forward recipes. Pam Smith, RD, chef, and former nutritionist to the Orlando Magic and LA Clippers, says she has impressed many a meat-eater with burgers made from chickpeas and mushrooms. The beans supply protein and fiber while the mushrooms add a meaty taste. "Mushrooms and beef share the same elements that produce umami," says Smith.
While conventional wisdom of what makes plant-based eating so good for you isn't perfectly reflected in many of the plant-based meat alternatives out there, these products are better choices for the environment and animals—and they pass the test of looking and tasting a lot like meat. If they eventually lead to more whole plant-based foods in your diet (ie: beans, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, and fruits), then they're a good choice in that sense, too.