Plant-based meat is making headlines, but is it healthier than real beef?
In fast-food joints and sit-down restaurants, you can find a new kind of burger—and it’s not made from beef, turkey, or chicken. These patties, from companies such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, are crafted from an alternative “meat” made entirely of plants.
But this isn’t your usual veggie burger. “This new generation of plant alternatives to meat is distinguished from its predecessors by the intent to mimic animal meat’s taste and texture,” says Kris Sollid, RDN, senior director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council.
Some brands boast that these new products look, smell, and even “bleed” like real meat. Plant-based meat is so popular that many restaurant chains are branching out beyond burgers. They’re adding plant-based meat to tacos, burritos, breakfast biscuits, and pizza. You can even buy it at some supermarkets.
But does it deliver? Of 1,000 people questioned in a 2019 survey from the International Food Information Council, 53 percent gave plant-based meat alternatives a thumbs up for flavor, and two-thirds said the faux beef had a similar taste or texture to the real thing. But not everyone agrees. “Some people want it to taste like a juicy burger, but the first bite and every bite after just disappoints,” says Jill Weisenberger, RDN, CDCES, a certified diabetes care and education specialist and author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. “And likewise, some fans of the original style of veggie burger find that these new varieties have an off flavor and taste just a bit too meaty.”
Taste aside, there are other factors driving the success of these products. Many people consider them to be a healthier alternative to animal protein. And some assume they’re better for the environment, though the jury’s still out on that.
Should you bite? Keep reading for the answer.
The Sum of Its Parts
Creating a product made of only plant ingredients that delivers meat’s juicy, rich flavor and texture is no easy feat. It requires a long list of ingredients. While these vary from brand to brand, plant-based meat consists of four basic components.
First, and most important, is protein, usually from legumes such as soybeans or peas. These aren’t simply added to match meat’s protein (about 20 grams per 4-ounce serving). Protein plays a structural role, delivering the satisfying chew you get when you bite into a burger, sausage, or piece of chicken.
Next is fat for sizzle, juiciness, and the indulgent mouthfeel meat lovers crave. Accomplishing this requires a mix of fats such as coconut, canola, and sunflower oils, and sometimes even cocoa butter.
Then there are binders like wheat gluten, isolated plant proteins, cultured dextrose, or methylcellulose to hold everything together.
Finally, ingredients are added for flavor. Some, such as lemon juice, vinegar, and salt, are easy to recognize (and pronounce). Others, not so much. Consider soy leghemoglobin. Derived from soybeans, it supplies heme, a substance in many foods that delivers oxygen throughout the body. As it happens, iron-containing heme is also perfect for providing meat-like flavor. Some manufacturers add vitamins and minerals, presumably to mirror or even exceed the nutrients found in animal protein, and some add ingredients such as beet juice extract for color.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
“Some people assume that anything labeled ‘plant-based’ is a healthful choice,” says Weisenberger. “But you really have to scrutinize the food label to assess the wholesomeness of plant-based burgers and other vegetarian meat substitutes.”
Take fat. Many brands of plant-based meat substitutes can be as much as 36 percent lower in fat than beef and have zero cholesterol. But that doesn’t automatically mean they are a better choice for heart health. Compare a 4-ounce serving of plant-based meat with ground beef or skinless chicken. Yes, you’ll save about 80 milligrams of cholesterol with the plant alternative. But you’ll still net 6 to 8 grams of unhealthy saturated fat. That’s roughly the same amount you’d get from beef and considerably more than the single gram in a piece of chicken. How can that be? Some brands use coconut oil. Despite its healthy image, coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat and may increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol.
Beef and chicken contain very little sodium, but many of the new meatless burgers can pack more than 360 milligrams of sodium. If you choose to eat these foods, make sure they fit into your 1,500- to 2,300-milligrams-per-day sodium budget.
What about calories? A typical 4-ounce plant-based burger supplies about 250 calories. That’s slightly less than the 280 calories in a same-size beef patty, but nearly double the 136 calories of a 4-ounce skinless chicken breast.
Because faux-meat ingredients are heavily processed, they’re often stripped of many of their nutrients. Even though many popular alternative meats are made from naturally fiber-rich peas or soy, these ingredients are processed with the sole purpose of extracting their protein; the bulk of their fiber is tossed. While you’ll find 2 or 3 grams of fiber listed on the nutrition label, most of it isn’t from beans. It comes from binders such as methylcellulose, which is derived from trees or cotton and happens to contain some fiber. Eating that fiber isn’t quite the same thing as eating peas or edamame.
“Added fibers still have benefits,” says Weisenberger. “But the greatest benefits of fiber come from eating a variety of whole and minimally processed plants such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, pulses, oats, whole grain pasta, and whole grain bread.” Because these foods provide lots of different kinds of fibers, they deliver multiple health perks. They keep your digestive system regular, help prevent heart disease, and may help you to feel full longer between meals.
If you’re curious about these new meat alternatives, there are a few things to keep in mind before you dig in, especially where burgers are concerned. Pay attention to toppings, whether you’re eating a beef, turkey, or plant-based burger. “Many of the things we top them with are oozing with calories, sodium, fat, and sometimes saturated fat,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of Plant-Powered for Life. Stick with lighter, healthier toppings such as lettuce, tomatoes, onions, or a thin slice of avocado. When it comes to sides, say “no thanks” to the plant-based chili fries and go with a small salad instead.
Don’t overlook carb count. Some plant-based meat substitutes can contain up to 9 grams of carbohydrate per serving. That’s not including the burger buns, pizza crust, and biscuits that often travel with them, so count their carbs accordingly. Can they be a healthy part of your diet? “In the end, just like there’s room for a beef burger or chicken patty in most people’s diets, there’s room for a plant-based burger or other meat alternative, too,” says Weisenberger.