In recent trips to the grocery store we’re all seeing a growing number of meat alternatives. And ‘’alternatives” in this case means choices that contain no meat at all! These meatless ‘meats’ are plant-based products that are processed to mimic the mouthfeel, flavor, and appearance of real meat.
To make plant-based meats, protein-rich plants are dehydrated into a powder, a variety of seasonings are added, as well as vitamins and a thickening substance called methylcellulose. Then the mixture is heated, moistened, and processed. This mixture is then formed into what looks and feels like beef-based hamburger.
Many people believe that plant-based burgers offer a more sustainable and ethical way to incorporate “meat” into your diet. But how do they stack up nutritionally?
Let’s compare two popular beef alternative brands against the real deal:
Both of these meat alternatives also add different micronutrients such as zinc, calcium, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12. These are added in an effort to make the alternatives nutritionally comparable to real meat, which naturally contains five of the B-vitamins as well as iron, zinc, and selenium.
Those are the numbers. What do they mean in terms of the actual nutritional value of these foods and their effects on your body?
Here are a few things to consider:
Although all of these foods have comparable levels of B-vitamins, real meat is a natural provider, while plant-based meat contains synthetic additives.
Meat is higher in cholesterol, which is not surprising, since plants have no cholesterol. But despite what is commonly believed, the findings of extensive research do not support the claim that high levels of dietary cholesterol increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. For this reason, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not include limits to the intake of cholesterol.
If it’s important to you to limit your sodium intake, plant-based meats present a problem.
Many of the vegetable oils used in making meat alternatives have a very high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. For more on why that matters, see the eSavvyHealth Insight: The Fatty Acid Motel.
Plant-based meats also include an ingredient called methylcellulose, but manufacturers do not tell you just how much. Methylcellulose is not a nutrient, it’s a chemical used to give plant-based meat its texture. Methylcellulose has been approved as a safe ingredient at certain levels by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
If you have a sharp eye, you noticed that in our above description of the production of plant-based meat alternatives, we noted that the mixture is “heated, moistened, and processed”—and you may have wondered exactly what “processed” means. This processing is done to thoroughly mix together the right relative amounts of a wide variety of processed ingredients—proteins, carbohydrates, fats, flavors, color agents, etc.–that are not naturally found together in food.
Conclusion: There’s no reason to think that plant-based meat alternatives are healthier to eat than meat, and good reason for caution in adding a highly processed food to your regular diet. But that caution may be outweighed by other reasons you have for preferring not to consume animal meat. It’s a choice you will make based on what you believe to be most important.
That said, there is a choice that is undoubtedly healthy: eating naturally produced unprocessed vegetables, foods that your body has evolved to healthily consume over many tens of thousands of years.
Beyond (25): Water, pea protein*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, dried yeast, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, contains 1% or less: potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, beet powder color, apple extract, pomegranate concentrate, sunflower lecithin, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, vitamins and minerals (zinc sulfate, niacinamide [vitamin B3], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], cyanocobalamin [vitamin B12], calcium pantothenate).
Impossible (19): Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% Or Less Of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate Vitamins and Minerals: Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12. Contains: Soy
- Nutrient Composition of a Selection of Plant-Based Ground Beef Alternative Products Available in the United States
- Nutritional Composition of Novel Plant-Based Meat Alternatives and Traditional Animal-Based Meats
- Characterization and Cellular Uptake of Peptides Derived from In Vitro Digestion of Meat Analogues Produced by a Sustainable Extrusion Process
- An Investigation of the Formulation and Nutritional Composition ff Modern Meat Analogue Products
- Dietary Cholesterol and the Lack of Evidence in Cardiovascular Disease