Tasty vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes are getting easier to find, but is plant-based meat healthy? Let's take a look at some of the popular options.
People have eaten plant-based meats for a long time, but they have become more widespread in recent years. Vegan meats have gained popularity due to growing awareness of how meat production impacts the environment and our overall health.
The environmental impact of switching from a meat-heavy diet to a vegetarian or vegan diet cannot be overstated. If Americans made the shift to vegetarianism, it would reduce carbon emissions in the US by 280 million metric tons per year. Moreover, a decrease in animal product consumption would also lead to more sustainable water usage, as more than 50% of fresh water in the US is used for factory farming and livestock production.
Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that substantial meat consumption negatively affects our health. Processed meats — meats preserved through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking and so on — are now considered carcinogenic to humans, meaning they can cause cancer. Increasingly, red meat is also considered likely carcinogenic.
Diets high in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and low in meat may also help improve the outcome of early-stage breast cancer. Meat and animal products generally have higher levels of saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels. High saturated fat is linked to a greater risk of heart disease and strokes.
As more and more people face the reality of the environmental and health disadvantages associated with meat consumption, we are seeing an increase in plant-based meat options to support this change. This leads us to ask: is plant-based meat healthy?
What Is Plant-Based Meat?
To get to the root of the nutritional value of plant-based and vegan meats, we need to understand what they’re made of. Plant-based or vegan meats are produced from plants and intended to taste, feel and look similar to real meat. There are many varieties of plant-based meats made from different ingredients and with a range of flavors.
Plant-based meats are usually made using ingredients like coconut oil, vegetable protein extract and beet juice. They can also utilize alternative vegetarian protein ingredients. Elements that are often found in plant-based meats include:
- Legumes like soybeans and lentils
- Grains such as quinoa or rice
- Vegetable protein isolates slike pea, coconut oil and soy
- Vegetable extracts
- Edible oils
- Seasonings and colorants
- Flavor-enhancing agents
The Downsides of Plant-Based Meat
Because of the vast array of plant-based meats available on the market, not all are created equal. Some of these meat alternatives are highly processed. For example, Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger offerings contain equal amounts of saturated fat as their meat equivalents. These plant-based burgers often contain even higher amounts of sodium than a single beef patty.
This raises the question once more if plant-based meats are healthy. The health-conscious among us may find many of their ingredients — such as refiled oils, modified cornstarch, dextrose and added sugar — offputting.
Plant-based “beef” burgers, made by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are popular vegan meat alternatives that resemble meat patties with ground beef-like texture, taste and appearance. They even have a pinkish hue that turns brown when cooked and releases a savory, juicy liquid.
These plant-based burger alternatives often comprise 50-80% water, 10-25% textured vegetable proteins, 4-20% non-textured proteins, 3-10% flavorings and up to 15% fat, with artificial coloring and binding agents making up the remainder.
Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are two of the most popular brands for plant-based “beef” burger options. They contain similar ingredients and have comparable nutritional profiles. Both 4-ounce plant-based burgers contain 240-250 calories, 14-18 grams of fat, 8-6 grams of saturated fat and 19-20 grams of protein. While they both have impressive protein content, the Impossible Burger is slightly richer in iron and other minerals.
The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are famous for their close resemblance to a traditional meat burger’s taste, flavor and texture. However, while plant-based diets are linked to various health benefits, the same cannot be said of these highly processed plant-based burgers.
Each burger is made using added sugars, salts and processed additives like protein isolates. Compared to whole food ingredients that plant-based burgers can contain — like black beans, lentils, mushrooms and grains — the plant-based burgers that resemble natural ground beef are highly processed and contain lower vitamins and nutrients.
So, alternatives like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are best consumed in moderation, not as a regular part of one’s diet.
The Healthiest Plant-Based Meats
If you want to eat the healthiest plant-based meats, remember one rule you can apply to most foods. Aim for plant-based meats that are processed as little as possible or are closest to their original, whole-food form as you can get. This includes foods made from jackfruit, which can have the same texture as pulled pork and can be seasoned, marinated or added to dishes that typically require meat to create a healthier, plant-based meal.
Other options, like soy-based meat alternatives such as tofu, are often healthier and require less processing than Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger products.
The bottom line: Plant-based meat alternatives are gaining popularity, even among flexitarians and meat-eaters. It’s important to avoid the more highly processed plant-based meats because they usually aren’t a healthy choice. However, they can be alright when eaten in moderation.
Generally, it’s best to enjoy plant-based meat options including soy products, whole grains, jackfruit and legumes because they contain far less sodium and saturated fat.
Pro tip: Simplify things even further by using legumes like beans, peas and lentils instead of meat. These options are inexpensive and nutritious sources of protein you can incorporate into homemade soups, stews, stir-frys, veggie burgers, tacos and salads.
Plant-Based Meat as a Green Alternative
While it may sometimes be debatable which plant-based meats are actually healthy, looking at them from a sustainability angle provides more clarity. Compared to animal agriculture, especially beef production, plant-based meat is much better for the environment as 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from animal agriculture. For humanity to shift towards a greener future, animal consumption must decrease drastically. For some, this is a harsh reality to face without tasty, satisfying substitutions for meat.
Across the board, animal agriculture is more damaging to the environment and worse for climate change than plant-based meats. This doesn’t even consider the litany of animal welfare issues surrounding the meat and dairy industries.
Conversely, neither Impossible Foods nor Beyond Meat, the two biggest meat alternative companies in the US, are transparent about how much greenhouse gas emissions they generate.
- What is Sustainable Development and Why Is It Necessary?
- These 6 Foods are the Worst for the Environment
- Plant-Based Diets for Beginners: A Helpful Overview
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