I’ve toyed with the idea of vegetarianism — veganism would involve giving up cheese and that’s something this Spaniard cannot bring herself to do — on numerous occasions. I’ve contemplated switching to a diet completely free of meat, fish and poultry for its potential health benefits — according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure.”
But there are other arguments to make around the idea of switching to a meat-free diet. Meat production has a variety of environmental impacts, from greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change to the high energy consumption necessary for raising livestock to the water scarcity driven by beef production.
And even if you put health benefits and environmental worries aside, there’s also the ethical dilemma an omnivorous diet poses: Do humans have the right to kill animals?
Global meat consumption continues to rise and is expected to increase 1.4% per year through 2023 — but so is the plant-based meat market, which is expected to reach $13.8 billion by 2027. That’s a significant increase from $3.3 billion in 2019. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Amy’s Kitchen — but also Maple Leaf Foods, Conagra and Kellogg NA — are some of the big players in the plant-based meats arena.
What Exactly Is a Plant-Based Meat?
Plant-based meats are substitutes for meat made of plants: Think about old-school tofu, seitan and tempeh or some more intricate concoction like a serving of Trader Joe’s Chicken-less Crispy Tenders — made out of soy flour, quinoa, rolled oats and a whole grain flour blend — or a classic Gardenburger veggie patty, which has rice and mushrooms in its list of ingredients.
With the arrival on the market of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in the last decade, the options for plant-based meats have started to include products designed to have the same taste, look and even texture as beef and pork. An Impossible Burger or a serving of Beyond Meatballs is intended to be cooked as “regular meat.” They’re difficult to tell apart from regular animal meats based on looks, and even their flavor is engineered to mimic that of animal products.
But even if these options can sound more appetizing to some eaters than a protein-packed garbanzo and quinoa salad, there are considerations to make before deciding to go the plant-based meats route. Fake meats have been likened to ultra-processed foods (UPFs), although Impossible Foods, for instance, insists its products are “unapologetically processed” but not UPFs. According to an article in the journal Public Health Nutrition, some practices in the production of UPFs include the use of cosmetic additives, fractioning of whole foods into substances and chemical modification of these substances. “Processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly profitable (low-cost ingredients, long shelf-life, emphatic branding), convenient (ready-to-consume), hyper-palatable products.”
Another study published by The Journal of Nutrition links the higher consumption of UPFs to vegetarians (37%) and vegans (39.5%) compared to meat-eaters (33%). “Not all vegetarian diets necessarily have health benefits, because of potential adverse effects of UPFs on nutritional quality and healthiness of diet,” it concludes.
As with any processed food you buy, you should be checking the ingredients list. A regular 4-ounce burger with just beef (80% lean/20% fat) packs 8.593 grams (g) of saturated fats, 75 milligrams (mg) of sodium and 19.23g of protein. In comparison, an Impossible Burger — which has soy protein concentrate, coconut oil and sunflower oil among its ingredients — has 8g of saturated fats, 370mg of sodium and 19g of protein. To contrast this, a veggie burger that doesn’t emulate meat, like the Gardenburger one, has 2g of saturated fat, 550mg of sodium and 7g of protein.
The Impossible Burger is much closer to regular meat in terms of saturated fats and protein than the veggie patty. But both meat substitutes contain a high amount of sodium.
“Plant protein is on-trend and growing globally, but this overview of plant-based meat substitutes demonstrates sodium is an issue for these products and, importantly, this nutrient is the leading dietary factor in terms of the global burden of disease,” concludes a 2019 study published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute aimed to profile and compare plant-based meat substitutes with equivalent meat products.
Don’t Think Eating a Plant-Based Burger Is Like Eating a Kale and Legume Salad
There’s something else you need to keep in mind while opting for plant-based meat. It doesn’t matter if you’re choosing to eat a plant-based burger with coconut milk cheese, a brioche bun coated in vegetable fats and a side of fries cooked in olive oil. Even if the burger is completely vegan, that doesn’t automatically make it a healthy option. And it definitely doesn’t make it the equivalent of another vegan option like a salad made of whole superfoods like kale, lentils, avocados and nuts.
Think about a vegan burger as a good substitute for a regular burger if you’ve decided to eat less meat. But don’t think about it as a way to start on a healthy streak.
Plant-based meats can help you transition to a slightly different diet that’s less reliant on animal products. But, in the long run, and if you decide to stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you’ll have to learn to love those spinach and lentil salads with a side of wild rice. You’re going to learn to appreciate all the taste of a falafel wrap, preferably made at home if you want to make sure you know what the sodium levels are.
Some of the benefits of a vegetarian diet are well reported. “When well designed and thought out, vegetarian and vegan intakes provide adequate nutrition for all cycles of life […] Vegetarians have a lower risk of most main causes of mortality, including heart disease and some cancers,” concludes an article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which also advises the intake of vitamin B-12 for vegetarians and vegans based on their physicians’ guidance.
How does that quinoa and garbanzo salad sound now?