The rise in plant-based meat alternatives is taking the fast-food world — as well as the intimacy of our kitchens — by storm. In fact, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, based in Atlanta, sold out of their new plant-based Beyond Meat chicken within a few hours of opening!
With any new processed food product, it’s important to take a very close look at exactly what you’re consuming. This is especially true when you’re talking about highly processed food items.
While these new meatless alternatives — such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger — are a boon for the environment, we can’t forget that these foods aren’t automatically healthy just because they’re environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, this realization is not one that has hit the masses just yet in regards to plant-based meat products.
What’s the nitty-gritty on plant-based meats?
In a comparison article by Harvard Health, it was determined that plant-based meat alternatives offer a source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. On the other hand, these plant-based meats are also highly processed and contain high saturated fats. While I’m all for a healthy amount of saturated fat, it’s generally a rule of thumb to source saturated from natural, plant-based sources (such as coconut oil) where the chemical design of the fat has not been altered, heated, or undergone any other kind of processing.
So, what’s the verdict? Read on to learn all you can about plant-based meats and decide for yourself if and when you want to consume them.
The Plant-Based Meat Paradox
So, you want to do a little something for the environment, while also still enjoying one of your favorite food items. Enter the plant-based burger patty! These food products have come around at the opportune time when environmental activism is steadily growing and sustainability is one of those keywords that is becoming routine in daily shopping. Yet, are these plant-based meats as good for our body as they are for the environment?
The Rise of Plant-Based Meat
Niche companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been trying out their 100 percent plant-based design for some time, but it’s just recently that fast-food chains are picking up on the trend and serving this faux meat in their shops. Recently, Impossible Foods announced partnerships with Burger King, Qdoba, and dozens of other restaurants. On the other hand, the other main competitor Beyond Meat is now serving their plant-based products at Del Taco, Subway, and even KFC.
Hold up… haven’t veggie burgers been around for years? Where is this sudden surge in popularity coming from?
The difference comes down to marketing and flavor. Traditional veggie patties have been marketed specifically to vegetarians and vegans — basically plant-based eaters. They were not designed to taste like meat and are not meant for people who currently eat and enjoy meat products. When it comes to these new plant-based meats — in particular, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — these are products designed to taste, feel, and look like meat and marketed to meat-eaters. Basically, these niche companies are not seeking to offer another product to current plant-based eaters, but reduce the amount of meat consumed by current meat eaters by offering a delicious plant-based option.
This is great news! More people now not only have the option but are opting for plant-based meat over actual meat, which is a win for animal activism and the environment. With that said, even though plant-based meat products are completely safe for consumption, they aren’t health foods and yet they are being treated and consumed as if they were.
Good for the Environment, Not so Good for the Body
Plant-based meats are highly processed products, foods that have undergone processing (frozen, canned, dried, baked pasteurized) and contain additives such as “a lot of extra sugar, salt, oil, and calories.” Highly processed foods generally contain the big no-nos for a healthy diet including dextrose and maltose — forms of processed sugar — trans fats, and hydrogenated oils.
Therefore, with a similar taste, texture, and look of red meat, plant-based burger patties also have some of those unhealthy highly-processed compounds such as saturated fat, high levels of sodium, and reduced-nutrient ingredients.
Plant-Based Meat 101
Before I jump into the pro and con arguments regarding plant-based meat alternatives, let’s take a look at exactly what’s in them. Discovering what’s in your food and looking at labels is an incredibly important part of eating healthy, whether you are a plant-based eater or not. One of the best rules of thumb when it comes to eating processed foods is if you can’t pronounce an ingredient or have to look it up to figure out what it is, then you probably don’t want to put it in your body.
With that info, let’s dive right into the ingredients labels of these plant-based meats so you can make the decision for yourself.
The ingredients include “water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, contains 2% or less of the following: cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, natural flavor, maltodextrin, yeast extract, salt, sunflower oil, vegetable glycerin, dried yeast, gum Arabic, citrus extract (to protect quality), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), beet juice extract (for color), acetic acid, succinic acid, modified food starch, annatto (for color).”
The ingredients include “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, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.”
Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Meat
If you’re still on the fence as to whether or not you want to continue or start consuming this product, you’re in the same boat as most of us! We want to help the environment and reduce animal death and cruelty, yet continue to enjoy some classic foods. To help you hone down this decision, here are a few pros and cons regarding consuming plant-based meats.
Good for the Environment
This is the best reason to eat plant-based meats! Yes, they may be delicious. Yes, they may help you wean yourself off of meat. Yet, by choosing a plant-based meat product, you’re also choosing to support companies that want to help the environment.
In fact, research has shown that “Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has more than 99% less impact on water scarcity and has 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef.” That’s a huge difference and one that our planet desperately needs! Similar results have been discovered with the Impossible Burger, showing that this type of food product has an 89 percent small carbon footprint “than a burger made from real beef.” On top of that, the Impossible Burger “reduces environmental impacts in every category studied, resulting in use of 87% less water, 96% less land, 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 92% fewer aquatic pollutants.”
Increased Saturated Fat and Sodium Intake
If you follow my articles, then you know I’m all about healthy dietary fat. I’ve argued the case for healthy fats for at least a year now and am all for enjoying the appropriate amounts from the safest sources. With that said, while small portions of plant-based saturated fat have been found to be healthy for a balanced diet — think coconut products (oil, cream, butter, and meat), avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, chia seeds, and dark chocolate — regular consumption of high amounts of saturated fat has been “associated with increased rates of both heart disease and premature death.” Plus, a sodium-rich diet has been linked to higher blood pressure (hypertension), which can lead to atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, and even an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age.
Provides a Dose of Certain Nutrients
Studies upon studies show that a higher intake of plant-based foods versus animal-based products leads to a longer life that is less riddled with health issues — specifically, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and heart disease. This is mostly attributed to a lower intake of animal-based carcinogens, in particular, processed meats which are “clear class-one carcinogens, along the same levels as cigarettes, as determined by the World Health Organization.”
Therefore, getting a dose of plant-based nutrients is huge positive!
When it comes to the Impossible Burger, you’ll get a baby dose (2 percent or less) of vitamins E, B1, B6, B2, B12, C, zinc, and niacin. The Beyond Burger, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to focus so much on the nutrient-profile, yet you’ll still get some of those veggie-derived goods including large amounts of pea protein and coconut oil, and two percent or less of beet juice, potato starch, and dried yeast, to name just a few.
Provides a Dose of Highly Processed Nutrients
So, you get a dose of vegetables in your diet. For many of us following the Standard American diet, this is an upgrade from previous veggie-less diets.
Yet, more bad news, it’s not that simple.
Most plant-based meat alternatives source their protein and texture from legumes such as lentils and whole soybeans. Yet, due to the “high degree of processing involved,” many of these healthy foods lose their nutrient-density and, in particular, the compounds that make them coveted by plant-based eaters in the first place. Per an article published by Harvard Health entitled Impossible and Beyond: How healthy are these meatless burgers? this nutrient-loss is explained:
“For instance, moderate amounts of whole soy foods, like edamame (soybeans), have been linked to reduced rates of cancer. This protection is often attributed to isoflavones, a subgroup of plant compounds called flavonoids thought to provide health benefits. Unfortunately, in the case of the Impossible Burger, one serving contains less than 8% of the isoflavones found in one serving of whole soy foods (one serving is roughly a quarter of a block of tofu or 1 cup of soymilk).”
In Conclusion? Careful Consumption, Not a Dietary Supplement
While the verdict is still out regarding the long-term effects of regularly consuming these plant-based meats, simply take a look at the break down of highly processed ingredients and how each one of those has been shown to degrade health. Logically, if you consume these plant-based foods on a regular basis and in the place of other raw, natural, plant-based foods, then it would seem that the body would suffer the same effects that studies have shown.
Therefore, it’s all about careful consumption.
If you’re choosing to eat plant-based meats regularly for their nutritional value, as a supplement for actual plant-based foods, or as a dietary supplement, then you may suffer the health consequences down the road. If you’re choosing to eat plant-based meats on occasion for their delicious flavor, meat-like quality, and to do a little something for the environmental and animal activism, then it seems you got the “not a healthy food memo” down pat.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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