Plant-based meat is going through a moment of exchanges for everything from burgers to chicken pieces.
Between 2017 and 2019, the plant-based food market (which includes alternatives to eggs, cheese, milk, and meat) grew by 29 percent in the United States.
But are these plant-based meat alternatives really healthy? AND healthier than animal meat?
Plant-based meats tend to look similar, compare in taste, and match the texture to animal meat, but they are made entirely from plants.
Some common options you are likely to see on your next food trip include:
- minced meat
- sausages or hot dogs
- Nuggets or “chicken” strips.
- “Fish” options similar to salmon, tuna or shrimp
It all depends on the product. Since plants and animals have completely different nutritional profiles, manufacturers often try to make plant products comparable to animal products in terms of macro and micronutrients.
According to a study, the following ingredients help add comparable nutrients that are good for you to plant-based meats:
- Protein: soy, peas, soy beans, almonds
- Fat: vegetable oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, sunflower kernels, rice bran oil, coconut oil, flaxseed flour, cocoa butter, peanuts
- Carbohydrates: potatoes, rice flour, sweet potatoes, corn, apples, tomato paste, wheat flour, sugar
- Dietary fiber: brown rice, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, quinoa, buckwheat, mushrooms, mung beans, carrots, squash
- Vitamins and minerals: iron, vitamin B12, zinc
However, some plant-based meats are highly processed and contain artificial fillers and additives that give you no nutrients.
Some products may also have high amounts of salt, sugar or saturated fat. Plants also lack some of the nutrients that animal products provide, such as vitamin B12, which are not always added to lean animal products.
Plant-based food has a lot of research on its side in terms of health benefits. If you add quality plant-based meats to your diet, it can help increase these health benefits.
A research review found that compared to conventional diets (diets that recommend different macronutrients or low calorie diets), plant-based diets are effective when it comes to weight management, diabetes and intestinal health.
Research has also linked plant-based foods to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease by about 40 percent.
This is not to say that all plant-based meat alternatives are perfect, they still have their drawbacks.
Pros: Healthy heart
Switching to plant-based options can be good for your heart health in the long run.
Research has also raised some red flags for excessive consumption of red and processed meat. The American Heart Association recommends exchanging those meats with plant sources to see a reduction in coronary heart disease.
To test this, a small study took 36 people who ate animal meat as part of their standard diet for 8 weeks. After these 8 weeks, they were asked to eat plant-based options for another 8 weeks while maintaining the same diet.
The researchers found that people had lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol during the plant phase. This study also ensured that participants ate similar diets beyond plants versus changing meat.
Cons: Added sodium
Choosing plant-based meat instead of animal meat can increase your sodium intake that you would not otherwise get from animal meat.
A study comparing plant-based meats with animal meat counterparts found that only 4 percent of plant-based options had lower amounts of sodium.
The average amount of sodium in plant-based meat products (which included burgers, minced meat, sausages, chicken, seafood and other meat by-products) was below 500 milligrams (mg) per 100 grams (g) of product. But some of the options had up to 1200 mg of sodium per 100 g.
Cons: Essential nutrients may be missing
Animal-based meat products also naturally contain essential vitamins and minerals that plants often lack.
A small study that looked at 37 different plant-based minced meat products found that most products had less protein, zinc and vitamin B12 compared to minced meat.
The same study also found that if plant-based products are not supplemented with certain vitamins, they often do not have them.
Since not all plant-based meats are created equal, checking the ingredients and nutritional facts can help you choose a quality product.
Here’s what to look out for:
- Complete food ingredients. Aim for products made with whole foods like beans, legumes, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. These can also help your protein needs.
- Reduce saturated fat. Total saturated fat less than 10 percent of calories is ideal.
- Decreased sodium. The FDA recommends staying below 2,300 mg of sodium per day, so try to choose the lowest sodium options available.
- Nutrients added. Check out that label for extra vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, iron or vitamin D.
Plant-based food is on the rise, and with it come plant-based meat products that replace animal meat.
While some plant-based meats may be a healthy alternative to red meat, others may be highly processed, rich in sodium, and lacking in essential nutrients.
Checking ingredient lists for products made with whole food ingredients can ensure you are making a healthy trade-off.