Plant-based meats are made from plants and manufactured to feel, taste, and appear like real meat.
Plant-based meats are healthier than regular meat as they're lower in saturated fat and calories.
Ingredients in plant-based meats include coconut oil, vegetable protein extract, and beet juice.
The plant-based industry has grown immensely over the past few years, making it readily available nationwide. It's not a new concept - veggie meats have been around since the late 1800s when John Harvey Kellogg developed the peanut-based "meatless meat," called Nuttose. Now, you can find a plant-based burger at your local Dunkin' or Pizza Hut.
For example, if every American replaced all beef, chicken, and pork in their diet with a vegetarian option, that would save 280 million metric tons of carbon dioxide - or roughly Ohio's entire yearly emissions. Decreasing animal product consumption also prevents water scarcity as more than 50% of Americans' freshwater use is for livestock production.
But are these processed plant-based meats healthier than their authentic counterparts? We spoke to two dietitians to find out.
What is plant-based meat?
To put it simply, plant-based meat is meat made from plants. It is created and manufactured to appear, feel, and taste like conventional meat from animal products.
Nowadays, you can find plant-based meat in the freezer section of most local supermarkets or grocery stores. Usually, plant-based meats come frozen, but some health food stores may carry fresh cold cuts in the deli section.
There are multiple forms of this veggie-based alternative, such as nuggets, sausage, burger patties, and much more. Some popular brands that carry plant-based products include the following:
But not all plant-based meats are made the same.
"A few years ago, the base of most plant-based burgers was vegetables, oat, or beans. Now, with plant-based foods gaining more popularity, there are many more options. Two of the most popular brands, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, utilize pea protein or soy protein concentrate in their burgers, both of which closely mimic the texture and taste of real beef," says Rhyan Geiger, RDN, a registered dietitian with a private practice.
Some of the most common ingredients in plant-based meat are the following:
Important: Plant-based meat is usually more expensive compared to the same quantity of animal-based meat. For example, a Beyond Meat patty costs about $3-$5 while a regular beef patty costs about $1 to $2.
"Regular meats are mass-produced in animal agriculture, as compared to plant-based meats which are developed on a way smaller scale, which makes it more pricey," Geiger says. Plant-based meats also contain a variety of whole foods, such as produce and spices, which are generally more expensive.
Is plant-based meat healthy?
Yes, plant-based meats are generally healthy when eaten in moderation and as part of a balanced diet, Geiger says. And Lal agrees, adding that "plant-based meat is a healthier option compared to meat."
For context, here is the nutritional breakdown of regular meat compared to their most popular plant-based alternative:
"Alternative meats seem to have lower amounts of total and saturated fat, higher amounts of fiber, and comparable amounts of protein and calories," says Supriya Lal, RD, a registered dietitian with a private practice.
Eating foods high in saturated and trans fat can result in high cholesterol, increasing your risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Fiber intake, on the other hand, can reduce the risk of developing breast, colon, and other digestive-related cancers.
What the research says: A small 2020 study examined the health effects of plant-based meats versus animal meat. Researchers found participants who ate at least two servings of plant-based meat for eight weeks lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease compared to participants who ate the same amount of animal meat - primarily beef and pork - for the same duration.
Red meat, in particular, is tied to an increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Processed meats like sausage, bacon, and hot dogs also increase the risk of stomach and bowel cancers.
However, plant-based meats are far from perfect. "They typically have higher amounts of sodium, usually in an attempt to make it more palatable and shelf-stable," Lal says. Too much sodium can cause adverse health effects, including high blood pressure and stroke.
Plant-based meats are also highly processed and filled with less healthy ingredients, such as refined coconut oil and modified food starch. Research from the National Institutes of Health suggests that processed foods cause people to consume an extra 500 calories a day and ultimately gain more weight.
Plant-based meats can fit into a healthy diet when eaten in moderation no more than a couple times a week, but do not make it your only source of protein. Stick to whole foods instead, Lal says.
Plant-based meat alternatives
Luckily, plant-based meats are not the only source of vegetable-based protein. Here are some healthier plant-based protein sources:
Chickpeas are rich in folate and contain 39 grams of protein per serving.
Lentils are filled with fiber and contain 18 grams of protein per serving.
Tofu contains 10 grams of protein per serving.
Quinoa is a whole grain and contains 8 grams of protein per serving.
Plant-based meats are a healthier choice compared to animal meats. Although these alternative meats may seem like an appealing source of protein to incorporate into your everyday diet, they are still highly processed and high in sodium. They are good for the environment and contain some nutrients, so the key is to eat them in moderation.
Consuming more whole-food, plant-based protein sources like quinoa or lentils is another way to help you get adequate protein and other essential nutrients to optimize health.
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