Burger King, The Cheesecake Factory and Del Taco, just to name a few, are joining the plant-based revolution that is taking the country by storm. But, it’s not just vegans or vegetarians who are lining up to buy them. According to market research firm NPD Group, 95 percent of plant-based burger buyers are those who also purchased a beef burger in the same year.
This trend is also being fueled by consumers’ who want more protein in their diets and are concerned with ethical questions regarding how meats are brought to market, sustainability and what they perceive as healthier alternatives.
There are a variety of meat substitutes on the market that include: soy, green peas, jack fruit, wheat gluten (Seitan) and beans of all types. Most of the meat substitutes are mixed with whole grains, nuts and seeds to provide a varied texture to mimic meat and enhance nutritional value. Today, you can find faux hotdogs, sausages, chicken-less strips and even seafood.
But, are these plant-based meats actually healthier for you?
In a recent discussion, registered dietitian Ashley Amaral from Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix shared the pros and cons of these new protein-based alternatives.
Let’s Talk Nutrition
Pros: “One thing meat and dairy products lack is fiber and natural phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, which you can get from some meatless-alternatives,” Amaral said.
Meat substitutes are lower in saturated fats and higher in fiber. And sometimes they can provide the same amount of protein as ground beef and can taste just as good. Beyond meat (pea protein, gluten/soy-free) very much mimics the taste and texture of meat.
Cons: On the other hand, however, these plant-based meats have some not-so-good qualities too. Some of the meat substitutes can be heavy in food colorings, textural additives and are high in sodium. Amaral added, “Be a wise consumer and read labels as meat alternatives often use coconut and palm oils. If you do not have any food sensitivities or allergies, soy or tempeh are great options with the least additives and a considerable amount of protein.”
The Environmental Angle
Pros: Currently, Americans chow down on roughly 50 billion burgers each year, enough to circle the planet 32 times. Although some mock meats are highly processed and are not eco-friendly in all ways, they are generally associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on global warming.
Cons: That said, there are issues associated with some meat substitutes, such as soybeans. Hexane, a chemical solvent used to remove oil from soybeans, is a neurotoxin and an air pollutant. And, many soy-based substitutes are also made from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans.
“If you want to avoid hexane-processed soy and GMOs, buy USDA organic products and look for GMO-free labels on the front of the packaging,” Amaral said.
The Bottom Line
Plant-based meats are a step in the right direction to helping the planet and animals – but, they’re not all created equal. A faux patty fried in palm oil and served on a white flour bun might not be the best option. The best is to diversify what you’re eating while maintaining a healthy diet.
“The biggest thing to be mindful of is that whether you eat strictly plant-based, animal or both, you can still make poor dietary choices—they aren’t black-and-white,” Amaral warned. “There’s lots to consider, so just be sure you are a wise consumer and read nutrition labels.”
If you are thinking about starting a new diet or setting goals for your health, consider setting an appointment with a Banner physician to get started right.