By now, it seems like everyone has heard of plant-based meat alternatives. Burgers, sausages, and other forms of food that are made to look, feel and taste like meat have exploded in popularity over the last few years, touting the promise of being better for us and for the planet. But what do we really know about their healthfulness and environmental impact? In this article, we’ll explore these issues to find out how they compare with their animal-based counterparts.
What does “plant-based meat” mean?
Vegetarian alternatives to meat are nothing new—veggie burgers, vegan deli meat and chicken-less nuggets have been around for decades. But while these products have typically aimed to meet the needs of vegetarians and vegans and don’t necessarily match the taste and texture of meat, newer “next generation” plant-based meat alternatives are attempting to mimic the real thing as much as possible. To date, many of these new alternatives have come in the form of foods traditionally made with red meat, like burgers and sausages—and that’s what we’ll focus on here. However, new products meant to mimic poultry, eggs and seafood are also coming to store shelves—an indicator that this novel wave in protein innovation is here to stay.
How are they made?
Plant alternatives to animal meat are made with ingredients and processing techniques that create colors, textures and flavors that are similar to animal meat. Protein sources in these plant products range from soy and potatoes to peas, rice and mung beans. The type of dietary fats used to make them include canola oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil and sunflower oil, and they’re usually bound together by methylcellulose, which is used as a thickener and emulsifier in many types of foods. In addition to food ingredients needed to build color, structure and flavor, they’re usually fortified with many vitamins and minerals to account for nutritional differences between them and meat.
From our annual Food & Health Survey, we know that along with the Nutrition Facts label, many people look at the ingredients list when deciding which foods to eat. This list is important if a person is seeking out the presence of beneficial nutrients or looking for food components they’d like to avoid. And if you’ve followed food conversations over the past decade, you’ve likely heard statements like “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” or “Look for foods with five ingredients or less,” which run counter to the lengthy list of ingredients found in new plant alternatives to meat. However, according to our recent consumer research on plant alternatives to animal meat, many consider the Nutrition Facts label to be more influential on their perceptions of healthfulness compared with the ingredients list. All of this is to say that although the ingredients lists for these products are often long, many consumers look past them in favor of consulting the products’ nutritional value.
Okay, so how do they stack up nutritionally?
Even though meatless protein foods benefit from somewhat of a health halo because they’re made from plants, the truth is that we don’t know if these plant alternatives are really any better for you than a burger or sausage made from animals. If you do a side-by-side comparison of two Nutrition Facts labels—one from a burger patty made from plants (on the left) and one from a 100% beef burger patty (on the right)—you’ll see that they look pretty similar.
The plant patty is just slightly higher in calories and has more saturated fat and sodium than the beef patty. It also has more fiber, calcium and iron (although this iron is in its non-heme form, which is not as easily digested and absorbed as the heme iron found in animal-derived foods). You might also notice that the plant patty has a longer list of vitamins and minerals, many of which are added as ingredients and are not inherently present in the amounts listed on the label. But a key point to remember is that just because the beef patty doesn’t list these nutrients on its Nutrition Facts label doesn’t mean that beef doesn’t provide these nutrients. Since only vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium are required to be listed, all others are included at the discretion of the food producer. The beef patty has less sodium, a few more grams of protein and also contributes cholesterol, a fat-like substance that isn’t found in plants and therefore isn’t found in plant-based burgers.
All in all, the nutritional differences between the plant and animal burgers are relatively minor, and so far there isn’t any research to support whether these differences have an effect on health. Here’s what we do know: 1) red meat and processed meats have been associated with health conditions like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer; and 2) observational studies have shown that replacing red meat with plant foods like nuts and legumes is associated with lower risk of mortality from these conditions. But because these new plant alternatives are not whole plant foods, we can’t necessarily say that they’ll have the same health impact when replacing meat as, say, beans or lentils do.
But they’re healthier for the environment, right?
So far, that looks like it may be the case. Research has shown that these products generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions and require less energy, water and land than beef production. Much of the research on the environmental impact of plant alternatives to meat has been commissioned by the food producers themselves (see here, for example), so more independently conducted studies are needed to see if the results are reproducible. We’ll also need studies to determine the impact of scaling up their production if demand continues to increase.
So should I eat them?
While the jury is still out on their impact on health, plant-based alternatives to meat are a great option if you’re looking to cut back on your red meat consumption. By coming close to providing both the nutrition and sensory attributes of eating a burger or sausage, they allow consumers to make a plant-based substitution without sacrificing the experience of eating meat. More research is needed on their environmental impact (especially as their production scales up to meet consumer demand), but at this time it seems that plant alternatives to meat win out when it comes to their use of land, water and energy resources compared with animal meat. Whether you opt for a burger or sausage made from red meat or from plants, our advice is the same: pair it with a whole grain bun, pile a bunch of vegetables on top, and be mindful of the condiments and other toppings you choose.