In the past, plant-based meat alternatives were relatively straightforward. Most were made from whole ingredients like beans and grains and didn’t taste anything like actual meat. However, the new generation of these products includes meat substitutes made to look and taste like the real thing. Now you can find plant-based burgers, sausages, ground ‘beef,’ deli slices, meatballs, seafood and more at the grocery store.
Are Plant-Based Meats Healthier?
A Consumer Reports survey found that half of Americans eating plant-based meat alternatives are doing so because they perceive them as healthier, but is that true? When discussing the nutritional benefits and drawbacks of plant-based alternatives, it’s easiest to divide them into two categories: minimally processed whole foods (like tofu and black beans) and processed imitation meat (like Beyond Burgers). The first group is considered healthier overall, but typically offers less protein and doesn’t resemble actual meat. The second group is manufactured to mimic meat in every aspect – the look, taste, texture and nutritional profile – but is not actually ‘healthier’ than animal protein.
Take imitation burgers for example. A medium size patty of 80 percent lean ground beef contains around 250 calories, 17 grams of protein and 20 grams of fat. To match the nutrient content of beef, plant-based beef manufacturers usually start with isolated proteins from soy, peas, potatoes, rice or wheat. Then these products are fortified with vitamin B12, iron, zinc and other micronutrients found in red meat. Manufacturers also use saturated fats like coconut oil, cocoa butter and palm oil in their products to mimic meat’s high saturated fat content. Some companies also add plant-based hemoglobin or extracts from red beets or berries to replicate how red meat ‘bleeds’ when cooked.
The final product is an ultra-processed food that is nutritionally similar to a beef burger, often high in saturated fat and sodium. While these are generally considered nutritional red flags, scientists are still unsure if processed meat substitutes carry the same risks as other highly processed foods or even red meat. A small Stanford study found that a group of participants who consumed two daily servings of red meat were at greater risk for cardiovascular disease than a group who had two daily servings of plant-based meat alternatives, despite the alternatives’ high levels of sodium and fat. Additionally, those in the plant-based group saw lower LDL cholesterol levels and lost an average of two pounds during the study.
The Environmental Perspective
Apart from health, concern for the environment is another reason for choosing plant-based meats over the real deal. After all, the way we produce, transport and consume food accounts for a third of human greenhouse gas emissions and beef alone accounts for about half of the emissions linked to U.S. diets. Plant-based meat products provide an environmentally friendly alternative to beef and other animal products. A Johns Hopkins study found that plant-based meats have a 90 percent smaller carbon footprint than beef and take 99 percent less water and 93 percent less land to produce. The greenhouse gas emissions produced by plant-based alternatives are also 43 percent lower than poultry, 63 percent lower than pork and 34 percent lower than farmed fish.
Choosing the Right Meat
While meat is not inherently unhealthy, there are several reasons someone might consider eating plant-based alternatives. When thinking about substitutes, whole food-based alternatives are healthier, but imitation meat, in moderation, can be part of a balanced diet as well. Below is a summary of some popular meat alternatives and substitutes:
- Beef alternatives:
- Impossible Burgers: these are soy-based burgers that cook, look and taste like ground beef.
- Beyond Burgers: similar to the Impossible Burger, Beyond Burgers are made to replicate beef. However, Beyond Burgers are soy-free and made from pea protein.
- Chicken alternatives:
- MorningStar Farms Veggie Chik Patties: these patties are made from soy protein and wheat flour and are breaded like a regular chicken patty.
- Impossible Foods Chicken Nuggets: these nuggets are made with wheat flour and soy. The nuggets are breaded and have a meat-like texture.
- Minimally processed alternatives:
- Tofu and tempeh: Both products are made from soybeans. Tofu is made of thickened soy milk and can be bought in blocks with varying textures (from silken to extra firm). Tofu has very little flavor on its own, but easily absorbs the flavor of sauces and seasonings, making it a versatile plant protein option. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and is firmer, chewier and more savory than tofu.
- Seitan: Seitan is made by isolating the protein from wheat (also referred to as vital wheat gluten). It has a stretchy meat-like texture and a high amount of protein. Seitan is often used as a chicken or turkey substitute.
- Beans, lentils and other legumes: Black beans, soy beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes are popular sources of plant protein. They can be eaten alone, in soups, salads and even made into burgers. They’re inexpensive and provide a host of beneficial nutrients.
The LHSFNA offers a variety of nutrition and fitness resources, including our Nutrition & Fitness for Laborers series of pamphlets and Principles of Good Nutrition toolbox talk. LIUNA signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can browse the Fund’s collection of nutrition and fitness publications here.