Today’s new plant-based burgers are a far cry from the dry and crumbly veggie burgers of the past. With formulas that mimic the exact taste and experience of eating red meat, these substitutes can fool even the most devout meat lovers into thinking they’re eating the real thing. But are these meatless burgers really better for you? The answer is that it depends on how the plant-based meat is made.

Plant-based Meat: A Rapidly Expanding Market

Growing numbers of mainstream consumers are demanding food products that are better for the environment. They're also looking for ways to reduce red meat consumption in their diets, for good reason. Countless studies over several decades show that reducing red meat consumption lowers the risk of cancer.For more information on the connection between meat and cancer rates, read: How Plant-based Foods Help Fight Cancer.

Food manufacturers, retailers, and fast food restaurants are meeting this increased demand by offering more plant-based meats. Some analysts project that the alternative-meat market will increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030.2 

The two big hitters in the fake-beef market are currently Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Their products are available at many restaurants and national fast-food chains, including Burger King, Hardees, Carl’s Jr., TGIFriday’s, and Granite City. You’ll also find their products at your local grocery store in the meat aisle next to ground beef and turkey burgers.

Supermarket sales of plant-based meats have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plant-based meat sales have increased 148 percent compared to the same time last year. In fact, plant-based meats are now selling at twice the rate of animal-based meat.3

How Alternative Meat is Made

Alternative meat products fall into several different categories – according to protein source.  

  1. Plant-Based Proteins. These lab-made products are created by removing protein from a plant (soy, potato, bean, pea, etc.) and combining that protein with other plant-based ingredients.4 Many of these products, like Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, are sold in supermarkets and through fast-food chains and restaurants.
  2. Cell-based Proteins. In cell-based protein products, an animal cell is removed from an animal and grown in a lab to create meat – without the hair, feathers, and bones. A cow cell creates beef, a chicken cell makes chicken, and so on.Cell-based protein products are not yet available for consumption. However, in March 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a framework for regulating cell-based meat which means cell-based protein products are closer to being available for consumers. Keep in mind these are real meat products – they just don’t come from slaughterhouses.  
  3. Alternative-based proteins. Manufacturers are continually exploring alternative protein sources to create meat-like products. One example is mycoprotein, which ferments glucose with a thread-like fungus found in soil.7 Researchers are exploring using proteins isolated from insects to create meatand proteins extracted from spirulina, a type of blue-green algae9 – both for human consumption.

How does real meat compare to plant-based meat?

Protein: Most of the popular fake-beef products, like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, contain similar amounts of protein as in real ground beef. Animal-based protein naturally provides all the essential amino acids your body needs to build bone, muscle, and maintain overall health. Most plant-based meat manufacturers must combine a variety of plant proteins to improve its amino acid balance, although it might not be equivalent to meat.10 

Sodium: When checking labels, you might find that the majority of meat alternatives contain more salt than the meat products they are replacing.9 Unprocessed meat is naturally low in sodium. But topping your fake or real beef burger with condiments like ketchup and surrounding it with a hamburger bun will significantly increase your sodium intake.

Cholesterol and Fat: Most plant-based burger patties don't contain cholesterol. In comparison, four ounces of lean ground beef has about 80 milligrams of cholesterol. Plant-based meats engineered to taste like beef and ground beef (depending on the fat level) have similar amounts of fat. Fat is added to plant-based beef to improve its flavor and make its texture resemble that of real beef. Often the added fat is a saturated fat, like coconut oil.9 Just like with natural meat burgers, saturated fats are associated with raising bad cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart disease.11 

Fiber: Plant-based burgers score slightly better on fiber than meat does. But if you're looking to boost your fiber intake, then your best option is to eat grains (barley, bran, quinoa, oatmeal), whole fruits and vegetables, lentils, and beans.10

Calories: Most fake-meat burgers have about the same number of calories as their real-beef counterparts. For example, four ounces of ground beef (20% fat) contains 287 calories, whereas popular plant-based versions hover around 250 calories for four ounces. 

Nutritional Comparison of Plant-based Beef and Real Ground Beef


Sources


Things to Consider Before Making the Switch

Here are some points to consider that can help you determine if eating plant-based meats is right for you.

You Want to Eat More Vegetables

Although the ingredients in plant-based meats come from plants, that doesn't mean you're getting the same nutrients and health benefits as you do when eating whole fruits and vegetables. If your goal is to eat more vegetables, then you're better off replacing French fries with a salad to accompany your real-beef burger.

You Want to Consume Less Meat

If your goal is to eat less red meat or meat in general, then occasionally substituting plant-based meats for the real thing makes sense.  

You're Concerned About Animal Welfare

Plant-based meats are obviously the more ethical choice because they don't utilize food sources from livestock farms or slaughterhouses.  

You Want to Reduce Environmental Impact

The Food and Agriculture Organization recently estimated that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse emissions, with 65 percent of those emissions coming from beef and dairy cattle.12 And a 2019 study in Science found that even the dairy farms that emit the smallest amounts of greenhouse gases still create 36-times more pollution than the average farm that produces peas.13 Limited research has been done to show that producing plant-based meats is better for the environment. But as the alternative meat market grows, experts expect to see variations in carbon footprints across products and brands.

You're Pinching Pennies

Alternative meat products cost more than traditional meat. Popular plant-based "beef" products at the grocery store are about $11 per pound, compared to ground beef that usually sells for $3-6 per pound.9,14 

You're Concerned About Safety

Eating plant-based meat can reduce your worries about contracting illnesses like food poisoning from undercooking meat.  

You Want to Avoid Eating Processed Foods

When creating plant-based proteins, manufacturers use many different ingredients and additives to mimic the texture, appearance, and flavor of animal-based protein products. The manufacturing process can include blending, homogenizing, and cooking at high temperatures.9,11 This puts plant-based meats in the category of highly processed foods. The problem with most heavily processed food is their high level of sugar, sodium, and fat. The nutritional value of the ingredients can also be reduced or lost during processing. 9

You Have Food Allergies

Read the label if you have food allergies or are sensitive to certain ingredients. Fake-meat products can contain soy, gluten, legumes, and other potentially allergenic ingredients. 

The Bottom Line

At this point, it's not accurate to label the new generation of plant-based beef products as truly healthier than their real-meat counterparts. And to be fair, neither Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods claim to be so. The mission statements of both companies focus on shifting consumers from animal to plant-based meats to improve sustainability, conserve natural resources, reduce climate change, and impact animal welfare. At the very least, choosing an alternative protein source burger over a ground beef burger will help you decrease your intake of red meat.

References

  1. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Continuous update project expert report 2018. Diet, nutrition, physical activity and colorectal cancer. www.aicr.org/continuous-update-project/reports/colorectal-cancer-2017-report.pdf [Accessed Jan. 13, 2020]
  2. UBS Report. The food revolution. July 2019. https://www.ubs.com/global/en/wealth-management/marketnews/home/article.1442540.html. [Accessed June 26, 2020] 
  3. Plant Based Foods Association. New Data Shows Plant-Based Food Outpacing Total Food Sales During COVID-19. https://plantbasedfoods.org/plant-based-food-outpaces-total-food-sales-during-covid19/. [Accessed June 25, 2020]
  4. The Good Food Institute. Plant-Based Meat, Eggs, and Dairy: 2019 U.S. State of the Industry Report. https://www.gfi.org/files/soti/INN-PBMED-SOTIR-2020-0507.pdf  [Accessed July 1, 2020]
  5. The Good Food Institute. Cultivated Meat: 2019 U.S. State of the Industry Report. https://www.gfi.org/files/soti/INN-PBMED-SOTIR-2020-0507.pdf?utm_source=form&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=SOTIR2019  [Accessed July 1, 2020]
  6. Food and Drug Administration. USDA and FDA Announce a Formal Agreement to Regulate Cell-Cultured Food Products from Cell Lines of Livestock and Poultry. March 07, 2019. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/usda-and-fda-announce-formal-agreement-regulate-cell-cultured-food-products-cell-lines-livestock-and [Accessed June 25, 2020]
  7. The Good Food Institute. Fermentation: 2019 U.S. State of the Industry Report. https://www.gfi.org/files/soti/INN-PBMED-SOTIR-2020-0507.pdf  [Accessed July 1, 2020]
  8. Rubio N, Fish K, Trimmer B, Kaplan D. Possibilities for engineered insect tissue as a food source. Front Sustain Food Syst April 17, 2019. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00024
  9. Sha L, Xiong YL. Plant protein-based alternatives of reconstructed meat: science, technology, and challenges. Trends in Food Science & Technology August 2020:102;51-61.
  10. Zeratsky K. (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. Sept. 24, 2019.
  11. Hu F, Otis B, McCarthy G. Can plant-based meat alternatives be part of a healthy and sustainable diet? JAMA 2019;322(16):1547-1548. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2749260. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.13187 [Accessed June 29, 2020]
  12. The Food and Agriculture Organization. Key Facts and Findings. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/. [Accessed July 1, 2020]  
  13. Poore J, Nemecek T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 2018;360(6392)987-992. 
  14. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Average Retail Food and Energy Prices. https://www.bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/data/averageretailfoodandenergyprices_usandmidwest_table.htm. [Accessed July 1, 2020]