So in the past few years, there has been an explosion of new products which are designed (literally designed in a manufacturing facility) to replace meat. These burgers, sausage, and chicken nuggets all look the part; but are they really healthy for us? “Plant-based meat substitutes” — If I even just said those words to my grandmother she would look at me utterly confused, like I was speaking Mandarin! But then again my grandma didn't know what a butternut squash was until about a year ago so let’s take that with a grain of salt. When I walk through the center of a grocery store these days, I'm literally astounded by the plethora of products I see in boxes, packages, and cans — things that we call food. Food scientists are modern day magicians; they've become masters at transforming and engineering perfectly fresh and delicious food into ultra-processed, highly palatable products in boxes with eye-catching branding. Now their latest invention looks, smells, and possibly even tastes like meat!
So the first question is: why have we created these products? Well it's mostly because of the environmental impact — and there's no denying that the production of animal products takes quite a toll on our planet when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and overall use of resources. But I am not here today to talk about the sustainability of our food system; rather I want to really just dive into the health and nutritional value of plant-based meat — are these substitutes truly healthier than the real deal? Let's objectively compare. Let's really get into the meat of it. First, we’ll talk about the nutritional composition. Let’s take a look at this chart, which compares a name-brand plant-based burger to 90% lean ground beef:
When it comes to total calories, fat, carbs, and protein; it’s pretty comparable. I will mention that the protein in the beef is going to be a little more bioavailable, meaning our bodies will better be able to absorb the amino acids compared to the fake meat. The real beef will also have a more complete amino acid profile, meaning it’s slightly a higher quality protein source. When it comes to fiber, this is where the plant-based burger has a little bit of an edge. 5 grams of fiber is definitely decent. What about sodium? You can see a much higher salt content in the plant-based burger compared to ground beef. In terms of micronutrients, the plant-based burger is fortified with a number of vitamins, and overall the values are comparable to beef; in fact the plant-based option has slightly more (however I do question the bioavailability of fortified nutrients). All in all, when you look at the nutrients between the two, it’s fairly similar. So based on this, you might say “wow, the plant-based burger is pretty good… it may actually be even better! But… we are going to take a deeper dive and critically analyze the ingredient list.
In general, it is a good idea to not become obsessed with the numbers, like the grams of fat or the total number calories. Rather, a typically better idea is to look at the quality of the ingredients! So let’s walk though the ingredient list of a very popular plant-based meat substitute and highlight a few of them.
Soy Protein Concentrate: this is an “okay” option, but it is inferior to animal protein based on its amino acid profile and bioavailability, as mentioned previously. Additionally, it is likely coming from genetically modified soybeans, which is not great for long-term consumption.
Sunflower Oil: when used in processed foods, this oil has been shown to release high amounts of aldehydes which can be toxic to DNA and cells.
Methyl Cellulose: this is a chemical compound used as a thickener, which is often used in cosmetic products. I don't know about you but I don't want to eat something that's in my shampoo! It does appear to be safe if consumed in moderation, but we're unsure about prolonged intake over time.
Salt: yeah they add quite a bit of salt for flavor and preservation, and too much sodium (as it has been well researched for decades) is no bueno for the heart.
Natural Flavors: what does this even mean? Honestly, it's so vague… but I guess they need to add flavor to an unnatural product created in a factory.
Cultured Dextrose: this “off-white powder” made of fermented metabolites is designed to inhibit the growth of some bad stuff… so yeah just another preservative.
Modified Food Starch: this is likely added as a binder for the ingredients to stay together. So you have starch (which is already a highly processed substance), and then you “modify” it??? How it is modified… who knows.
Soy Leghemoglobin: okay this is an additive that I actually had never heard of before until about a week ago; and that's because it's brand new, fresh out of the lab! (In fact the lab of a leading manufacturer of these plant-based meat products). It's apparently a yeast that has been genetically modified with soy to create an imitation of heme, the natural protein in animal foods like beef and chicken. So is this soy leghemoglobin safe? Well I tapped into the research (the research that's available anyways) and the only data that supports the health and safety of this brand new additive comes from studies that were directly funded by employees of the plant-based meat companies… can you say conflict of interest??
Titanium Dioxide: this is used in paint, plastic, printing inks, rubber, glass, and electric conductors; and excessive intake could lead to carcinogenic effects. The European Food Safety Authority states that “a safe level for daily intake of this food additive cannot be established”… sounds a tad sketchy to me.
Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate: add this one to the spelling bee!
Monocalcium Phosphate: this is a chemical compound primarily used in commercial fertilizers, but apparently we can eat it?
Now let's take a look at the ingredient list for:
Pork Chops: pork
Chicken Breast: chicken
Yeah… you get the idea. So we covered the nutrient info and now the ingredient list. I just want to quickly point out a couple statements from this comprehensive review (that does not have any conflicts of interest): “Plant-based meat can carry pathogenic bacteria originating from the raw ingredients”. “Health risks of consuming plant-based meat may also come from the presence of anti-nutrients like protease inhibitors, alpha amylase inhibitors, lectins, and phytic acid… which may inactivate digestive enzymes, impact iron absorption, and act as endocrine disruptors.” That means it can mess with your hormones — high steaks if you know what I mean.
THE PROS (fake meat compared to real meat)
Environmentally more friendly
Similar nutrient composition
Comparable taste and texture, making it a viable alternative for vegetarians
THE CONS (fake meat compared to real meat)
Fewer trace minerals
Less bioavailability of nutrients
Potentially harmful additives
Contains genetically modified organisms
I do think that livestock production and our current agricultural practices are indeed unsustainable, but is creating a product with controversial ingredients really the solution? Maybe, maybe not. I think we need to go to the root of the problem and make regenerative agriculture the priority. So I still think we can absolutely enjoy meat as a society; perhaps we should just be more mindful of the overall amount and the source. Try to find a local butcher or participate in community supported agriculture in order to get your meat from farmers and ranchers who are raising livestock and processing meat in a more sustainable, ethical way. Having said that, I do think we need to eat more plants. In general, having this mindset of being “plant forward” is probably the best way to go when it comes to health and sustainability. As for these plant-based meat alternatives and substitutions; I think at the end of the day we just need to keep it real. These products, in my opinion, aren't really real food. Plant-based meat is exactly what it says: meat made in a plant… a factory. So let's just enjoy food as food is meant to be eaten; in it's natural, whole, raw state.
Jack O’Connor, MS, RD
Lead Performance Dietitian, Inc Nutrition