- The chief executive officer of Whole Foods says many plant-based meat alternatives aren’t as healthy as some people think.
- Nutrition experts agree, noting that some plant-based meats are high in sodium and saturated fat.
- However, nutrition experts say the meatless alternatives may be a healthy substitute for people who don’t have time to prepare a diet of whole foods every day.
Plant-based meats are increasing in popularity, but are they healthier than real meat?
The chief executive officer of Whole Foods doesn’t think so.
Speaking to CNBC, John Mackey, a vegan of more than 20 years, says plant-based meats aren’t necessarily as healthy as some may think.
“Some of these that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods,” Mackey said.
“I don’t think eating highly processed foods is healthy. I think people thrive on eating whole foods. As for health, I will not endorse that, and that is about as big of criticism that I will do in public,” he added.
Two of the most popular plant-based meats on the market, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have skyrocketed in popularity.
Beyond Meat is featured on the menus of Dunkin’, KFC, Del Taco, and TGI Friday’s, while you can find Impossible Foods at Burger King, White Castle, and Red Robin.
Beyond Meat’s website says the company aims to create “the future of protein” and by “shifting from animal to plant-based meat, we are creating one savory solution that solves four growing issues attributed to livestock production: human health, climate change, constraints on natural resources, and animal welfare.”
But Mackey isn’t the only one who isn’t sold on the health aspect of the plant-based meats.
“Not all plant-based meats are created equally. Of all the plant-based meats in the market today, some are minimally processed and made with whole foods, while others are highly processed and contain additives and flavorings,” Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor in public health at the University of North Florida, told Healthline.
“Beyond Burger in fact is one of the highest plant-based burger in calories and saturated fat at 270 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat.”
In comparison, a Boca Original Vegan Veggie Burger has only 70 calories and 0 grams of saturated fat. A Boca All American Veggie Burger has 100 calories and 1 gram of saturated fat.
Wright says there are a number of potential issues with highly processed plant-based meats.
She says meat substitutes are often higher in sodium than fresh meat. This increases if marinades, sauces, or other condiments are added.
Some meat substitutes can also contain cheap filler ingredients with little nutritional value. Plant-based meats can be made from ingredients that seem healthy, such as beans and tofu, but they can still be high in saturated fat.
“Manufacturers often use coconut and palm oils, both of which are high in saturated fat, to give products a mouth feel similar to ground beef, so it’s important for clients to read labels on meat substitutes to determine fat content,” Wright said.
Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, agrees with Mackey, but she argues the practicality of a whole food diet is challenging for the average person.
“In a perfect world, we would eat nothing but unadulterated single-ingredient foods. However, that is not the reality of the way most people eat or want to eat,” she told Healthline. “So, I believe that all things considered, plant-based meats are still healthier than consuming possible carcinogenic or tumor-promoting animal proteins or meats.”
According to the
The guidelines state: “Eating patterns that include lower intake of meats as well as processed meats and processed poultry are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in adults. Moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults.”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a diet without meat, whether vegetarian or vegan, is still healthy.
“These diets are safe and appropriate for all stages of the life cycle. Like all diets, regardless of if they contain meat, they need to be well-balanced and include a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds,” Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline.
She notes that no single food can be regarded as health or unhealthy in isolation, as an individual’s overall diet must be considered.
“A plant-based meat used as a substitute for red meat, for example, would be a health-promoting choice. Using it to replace a salad or dish of beans and whole grains would not,” she said.
“Improved health is a journey and is personal. For many people, ‘fake meats’ allow them to move forward in their journey and can serve as a ‘gateway food’ to more plant-based options,” she said. “Plant-based diets are health-promoting, and plant-based meats provide consumers with ways to move in this direction.”