Americans consume an average of 50 billion hamburgers a year. That’s a lot of meat. While plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have risen in popularity in recent years, new concerns with the meat industry around COVID-19 have created more interest in these vegan meat options. Whether you’re new to the meatless market or you’ve been shopping for these products for a while, here’s what you need to know to select the healthiest options.
What is plant-based meat?
The reality is that unless your patty or meat alternative is made with tofu or pulses (such as black beans, peas or lentils), plant-based meats are considered processed foods. Processed foods are those that have been manipulated by manufacturers — they often contain a slew of ingredients to help make them taste better. And while not all processed foods are created equal, research suggests that a diet high in processed foods may result in a higher calorie intake and weight gain when compared with eating a diet high in whole foods and low in processed fare.
Processed foods are problematic in other ways, too. A big concern is sodium content. Too much sodium in the diet sets the stage for health problems, like heart disease and stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the majority of sodium in our diets comes from processed foods and restaurant meals.
Even though plant-based meats are processed, they can be a convenient way to replace — or reduce — the meat in your diet, especially when they’re eaten as part of an otherwise healthy pattern that includes generous portions of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Plant-based meat ingredients
The latest versions of plant-based burgers and other meats are designed to appeal to meat eaters who for environmental or health reasons, feel conflicted and want to reduce (but not necessarily eliminate) their meat consumption. The ingredients in these products vary and some are healthier than others. Here’s a look at some of the more common ingredients you may see on labels:
- Soy protein concentrate and isolate. Unlike whole soy foods, such as tofu and edamame, which are linked to health benefits, the jury is still out on these heavily processed forms of soy protein and what their health implications might be.
- Pea protein isolate. This protein substitute is extracted from yellow split peas. There aren’t known safety concerns with eating pea protein in this form, but from a nutrition perspective, it’s not the same as eating whole peas.
- Textured vegetable protein. This ingredient can be found in certain imitation meat products and while it’s often derived from soy, it can be made from other plant sources, including wheat.
- Vital wheat gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat. This form of gluten is used in seitan-based meat alternatives.
- Leghemoglobin. A derivative of soy, leghemoglobin is the compound used by Impossible Foods to give products the red (or blood-like) color. While the FDA recognizes this compound as safe, there aren't many studies on this ingredient and we don’t have long-term health or safety information gleaned from those people who eat it regularly. It may be a good idea to err on the side of caution and limit your consumption of foods made with this substance.
In addition to these ingredients, plant-based meats may include additives to create a more desirable texture. Sometimes, vitamins and minerals are added to plant-based meats, which can help you fill nutrient gaps, but they don’t provide the same benefit as when those nutrients are supplied in whole foods. And like other processed foods, plant-based meat substitutes may have high amounts of sodium — or at least higher than what you’d find in unseasoned meat.
Are vegan meats better for you?
A big draw for these foods is the perception that they’re healthier than eating meat, but whether that’s true depends on your overall diet, which product you’re consuming and what you might be eating instead. For example, if you’re choosing between a fast food burger and a plant-based option offered at a fast food chain, both have similar levels of calories, saturated fat and sodium, especially if they're served with the same fixings and on the same white bread bun. You might be surprised to know that the plant-based option could actually be higher in sodium. Neither are healthful on an everyday basis.
If you’re barbecuing at home, it’s probably no healthier to choose a plant-based patty over a turkey, chicken or grass-fed beef patty. In fact, a whole food, like ground turkey, has less sodium than a plant-based burger and shouldn’t contain any added fillers or preservatives.
However, healthfulness never comes down to one ingredient or one meal, so you can eat well (or not) in either scenario. If you’re actively looking to eat less meat — whether for environmental or health concerns — and you’re choosing a meat alternative, make sure that your meal also includes whole-food forms of plants, including a big helping of veggies, since most Americans fall well below the minimum targets. And while it’s fine to eat plant-based meats to add some convenience to your life, explore other whole plant-based proteins as well. For starters, you can transform lentils into a “meatloaf” or “meatballs,” make burgers from black beans or create a scrambled egg alternative using tofu.
Are meat substitutes better for the planet?
Producing meat requires numerous land and water resources that contribute to climate change, according to agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Beef production is especially impactful, as it requires much more land and water than other animal foods, such as dairy, poultry, eggs and pork. There’s no doubt that choosing a plant-based meat can help minimize the environmental impact. If that’s your intent, pea-based meat alternatives may be your best bet, environmentally speaking. To extract the protein from soy, a highly toxic solvent is used, which not only poses a health risk to factory workers, but also contributes to air pollution.
Plant-based meat shopping tips
If you’re shopping for plant-based meats, here are tips to help you select the healthiest ones:
- Compare ingredients. Look for versions with fewer ingredients. Generally, longer ingredient lists are more likely to include a variety of fillers, gums and other substances, which are signs a food is more heavily processed.
- Watch sodium levels. Plant-based patties may have more than 500 milligrams of sodium — and topping it off with a bun and cheese adds even more. Counter these high sodium levels by making whole foods, which tend to be lower in sodium, the focus of your other meals — and always drink plenty of water.
- Check labels. Plant-based meats may contain allergens and other ingredients you may be sensitive to. Soy, wheat and gluten are common triggers that are also commonly found in plant-based meats.
- Check nutritional info for protein. The protein content of plant-based meats varies, so look for a higher protein option (above 10 grams) if it will be the sole source of protein at your meal.