Are the plant-based burger and meat analogues as healthy as they claim to be?

Updated: Jan 10

When my husband and I were first transitioning to a plant-based diet, the Beyond and Impossible products seemed like the perfect solution! Have your craving for meat satisfied in a healthy way! Woot! What's not to love? Um, a lot actually.






As the plant-based way of eating is taking hold, we're seeing more and more of these "meat" substitute (or meat analogue) patties, sausages and bulk 'ground' products showing up in the grocery store - not to mention the fast food outlets like McDonald's and Burger King. The Impossible Whopper at Burger King is lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol than the traditional Whopper made with beef. But it also has significantly more sodium (1,240 mg) compared to the original (980 mg).


I guess there's a place for this type of highly-processed product in the greater scheme of things, but when it comes down to it, it should be considered a 'transitional' food for those who've come to realize the real costs of eating animals.





Traditional plant-based sources of protein have gotten a bad rap over the years. Tofu doesn't appeal to everyone's palate. My husband says it's bland - unless I jazz it up with some sort of intensely flavored Asian sauce - and he doesn't like the texture of the silken variety. I can fix this part with a tofu press. But, tofu also comes with some unfortunate baggage, being perceived as some kind of hippie-dippy cultural artifact from the '60's.






Getting back to meat alternatives, it's encouraging that people are really starting to understand the toll that animal-based meat takes on human health, animal welfare, the environment and household budgets. Whole-food sources of plant protein, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole soy, provide fiber and prebiotics to help your gut stay healthy - and help you feel 'full' longer. They also contain sustainable carbohydrates and healthy fats that can help balance blood sugars.


Over the last couple of decades, numerous well-designed studies have linked plant-based diets with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancers and other chronic diseases. There's little disagreement among experts in human nutrition and related disciplines that a Whole-food, Plant-based diet leads to better health, in addition to a healthier environment.





There are several obvious benefits to the new plant-based 'meat' substitutes:


1- Convenience. Time-pressed people can swing into fast food outlets, grab and go. The caveat here? Do you also get the fries and the sugary drink to go with your 'healthier' burger?


2- Easy protein. Recently, I wrote a post about the assumptions that people make about getting 'enough' protein. The bottom-line? If you're getting enough calories, you're getting enough protein. However, there are always exceptions - such as elite athletes and particularly some chronically ill or elderly folks who simply can't consume enough calories at a meal. The meat analogues could help these populations.





3- A less threatening, more 'accessible' way to transition away from animal protein. This describes our experience. My husband and I began adding the Beyond burger patties. Then, adding more of the bean burgers, plant-based 'chicken' and 'sausage' substitutes, we were finally able to completely consider ourselves fully plant-based.


4- Health benefits. The health benefits of eating a whole-food, plant-based diet is becoming better documented all the time recently. The meat substitutes do have health benefits as well, including: a much lower risk of food poisoning (think: eColi and Salmonella contamination), lowered inflammatory response and a lower incidence of inadvertently consuming organic pollutants that find their way to the top of the food chain in meat, fish and dairy. Also, plant-based meats cannot form heterocyclic amines when grilled at higher temperatures like meat can, eliminating that carcinogen.





Now, let's weigh the advantages against the disadvantages.


1- Processed is still processed. Purchasing, storing and cooking whole, unprocessed ingredients 'from scratch' can be daunting - especially at the beginning of the process of going plant-based. Some people can't jump that hurdle as easily as others. Busy families, for example. It's important to understand that this is a journey that begins with a single step and it's not a race to a finish line. Understand from the get-go that as you transitioned from animal protein to these convenient plant protein items, you will eventually want to transition from these products to whole foods.


2- Higher costs. They're expensive! There's no way around this fact. If your budget is tight, then keep these items to an absolute minimum and work a bit harder to skip this transitional step and go right to the whole-food, unprocessed phase.





3- Nutrient deficiencies. The mass market meat substitutes may or may not have the needed for a plant-based eater. The one nutrient that plant-based eaters need - and can't be assured of getting in these processed meat substitutes - is Vitamin B12. Read the label. But, failing that, we take a 1,000 mcg B12 tablet daily (the daily part is because we're, ahem, older). If you're under 60, consider taking that about 3 times per week.


4- Allergens. Again, you've got to read the ingredients listed on the labels. It's much easier to avoid allergens when purchasing and eating whole foods.


5- 'Hidden' fats, sodium and other ingredients. Label reading is just as important with meat substitutes as with other foods. Beware of higher levels of saturated fats in particular, since that's one of the things that we're going plant-based in order to avoid. Another ingredient that's finding it's way into alternative meats is 'heme' iron. 'Heme' iron is used to enhance the 'meaty' flavor and appearance of these products. You may decide that it's something to avoid since there is emerging evidence that it might be pro-inflammatory, contribute to an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, and cause increased (and unneeded) iron 'stores' in the body.





If you have increased risk factors - such as hypertension or diabetes - you might reasonably use these products only occasionally, as a 'treat'. What's perfectly safe for one person might not be for another.


We've discovered that, after nearly three years on the WFPB way of eating, that the appeal of alternative meats has waned. This is especially true as I've learned how to prepare delicious meals using simple, minimally processed whole foods. I still keep a few of these products in the freezer for occasional use, in addition to packaged seitan products and tofu in the deli tray of the fridge. The plant-based 'deli' slices are especially convenient for quick sandwiches. I simply recommend not relying on these products on a regular, daily basis.


You're the best person to determine how far to go when choosing to include alternative meats into your plant-based eating journey. This doesn't have to be an all or nothing decision. Just think. And, read labels. You'll get there.


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Resources:


Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets National Institutes of Health


We Can Prevent and Even Reverse Coronary Artery Heart Disease Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, Preventive Medicine Consultant, Cleveland Clinic


Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults AHA Journal


5 benefits of a plant-based diet MDAnderson Cancer Center


What Science Says About the Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diets Discover Magazine


A plant-based diet is a powerful way to achieve good health. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine


Effects of a Plant-Based Diet on Plasma Lipids Stanford Medicine Nutrition Studies Research Group



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