- More restaurant chains are turning to faux-meat options.
- But experts say just because it’s not meat, doesn’t mean it’s significantly healthier.
- In general, diets lower in meat can be healthier. But faux-meat products can have high sodium levels.
Burger King has the Impossible Whopper. Carl’s Jr. has their Beyond Famous Star. KFC even introduced a plant-based chicken-like product — and sold out in 5 hours.
It seems, either for the sake of following a trend or for the purpose of offering alternatives to more diverse consumers, many fast-food brands are hopping on the train of plant-based meats. Grocery stores are even seeing an influx of meat-like, plant-based options on their shelves.
The bet on faux meat is paying off for companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, two of the larger purveyors of these plant-based products. Some economic forecasters predict these companies will be bringing in well over $100 billion in just about a decade. Even Tyson Foods thinks they can turn their nonmeat foods into big business.
But for all the hype and glam of these meat alternatives, there’s a very real reason companies are trying to encourage consumers to replace their beefy burgers with green ones: Research suggests they’re healthier, in the long run, for both humans and the planet.
Can these plant-based foods deliver the promise of healthier, longer lives, a smaller footprint, and big, delicious flavor? We asked experts to weigh in for us.
Many large-scale, comprehensive studies have looked at the question of who lives longer: people who eat predominately plants, or people who eat an omnivore diet with meat.
And the results have been pretty one-sided.
For example, one
The study’s authors also noted that, “Associations in men were larger and more often significant than were those in women,” which suggests men who eat a vegetarian or plant-based diet may see even more benefit than women who shun meat and animal products.
“Processed meats are clear class-one carcinogens, along the same level as cigarettes, as determined by the World Health Organization,” said Dr. Dana Simpler, primary care practitioner at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Plus, research confirms that people who eat a plant-based diet have a lower risk for
“Unlike a meat-based diet, which has been shown in several studies to be associated with different diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a plant-based diet has a number of benefits, including lower body weight, decreased risk of cancer, and a reduction in risk of death from ischemic heart disease — a restriction in blood supply to tissues, causing shortage of oxygen,” Mahmoud Ghannoum, PhD, author of “Total Gut Balance,” told Healthline.
“Another study published in 2018 involving more than 15,000 adults over 25 years found that animal foods high in protein and fat, such as lamb, beef, pork, and chicken were associated with a higher risk for premature death, while plant foods including vegetables, nuts, peanut butter, and whole-grain breads were associated with a lower risk for premature death,” said Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, co-founder of Mastering Diabetes and co-author of “Mastering Diabetes.”
Despite these findings, a
“We must ask ourselves why this is the case, given the numerous advantages and health benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet,” the researchers wrote.
That, it seems, is the challenge for dietitians and doctors alike.
When it comes down to the matter of nutrition, the Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, and other plant-based meat-like alternatives just aren’t that much different than their meaty twins — at least in terms of numbers.
“Since a meat-based diet poses a number of health risks, the perception is that consuming a meat-like alternative is a healthy swap. In this regard, eating plant-based meat is quite safe and makes sense,” Ghannoum said. “However, these meat alternatives are processed food, and like other processed foods are not as healthy as eating fresh vegetables.”
Salt and fat are a particular concern because many manufacturers add these ingredients for the sake of flavor. The addition of oils, for flavor and moisture, makes many of these not ideal for someone with diabetes or heart disease, Simpler says.
“The Beyond Burger has just as much saturated fat as meat,” said Hannah Koschak, RD, CD. “However, the Beyond Burger has 3 grams of fiber, which is beneficial.”
But in the benefit column for the fake meats is the absence of a particular type of fat, Koschak says. “Meat has naturally occurring trans fats, which should be avoided as much as possible. However, imitation meat does not have trans fats.”
Simpler added, “Also, soy protein isolates are so highly processed that they mimic the effects of animal protein in the body. So, it is important to pay attention to ingredients and avoid products with a lot of oil or soy protein isolates.”
What’s more, some of these plant-based patties have more sodium than ground beef, which is naturally lower sodium. An ounce of ground beef has about 20 milligrams of sodium, or about 70 milligrams for a 3-ounce cooked patty. A Beyond Burger has nearly 400 milligrams. High sodium intake is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases that are a leading cause of death in America.
So when it comes to the reason many people make the swap from meat — for their health — the switch from ground beef patties to plant-based look-a-likes does have more benefits than drawbacks, Koschak says. But it’s not the real switch to plant-based eating that many health advocates have been pitching for decades.
“No, it is not more nutritious by any means. However, health-wise, they are a better option than meat,” she said.
The experts Healthline spoke with agreed that any move toward a plant-based diet is a move in the right direction.
“These meat-like alternatives represent a short-term step towards eating less animal foods, but may not be a good long-term strategy to reduce the risk for future health complications,” Khambatta said.
But ultimately, the goal for anyone looking to extend their lifespan and reduce their risk of diet-related health complications is to move entirely to a diet focused on unprocessed plants.
However, the occasional faux-meat burger gets a thumbs up from these experts, as the look-a-like meats have some flaws but are, as a whole, still healthier than the real thing.