Plant-based meats are having a moment. You know the type: “burgers” that are supposed to “bleed” and taste like meat, without actually containing any animal products. Brands like Beyond and Impossible are seemingly everywhere now—you can even find them at Dunkin Donuts and Burger King. But are these meat-free alternatives like the impossible burger really healthy? Or are they just crowned with an unearned health halo?
The answers are hidden in the (very long) ingredients lists.
The Allure of Plant Based Meats
It’s no secret that red meat has had a bad rap for a while now. It’s a pretty hotly debated topic—whether humans should be strictly limiting red meat consumption—and the answers aren’t very clear. Recent analyses do suggest that Americans don’t need to worry as much as previously thought.
“When people are scared of red meat, it’s because of saturated fat and cholesterol, and that of course depends on the individual,” says Christina Kang, health coach at Parsley Health. The thing is, there’s no way to give a blanket statement that one way of eating is best for everyone, whether we’re talking about meat or vegetables or any other food. Our different genetics, microbiomes, and other health markers all influence how we should be eating for optimal well-being.
Kang says it’s hard to say exactly how many times a week a person should or shouldn’t eat red meat, but it’s never good to consume excessive amounts of one food. “A wide variety of food is going to be the best bet,” she says, adding that an omnivore diet is what we’re most set up for biologically. “Overall, we want your plate to be mainly vegetables, with a side of meat. You don’t have to necessarily have meat at every meal but you want to watch out for protein,” Kang notes.
Plant-Based Meat vs. Beef Nutrition Facts
When comparing the nutrition facts of these popular plant-based meats to a high-quality organic, grass-fed beef burger, there’s not a huge difference, says Kang. “The big picture is that the numbers themselves are pretty similar.”
Take a look:
Even when looking at the beyond and impossible burgers’ nutritional information, the calories, total fat, saturated fat, and protein numbers are very similar. The biggest differences are that a beef burger has significantly less sodium and carbohydrates than the plant-based meat alternatives. The beef also has no fiber, which isn’t a big deal if you’re getting your fiber from other foods. (You may have noticed that beef also contains some dietary cholesterol, but current nutritional research shows no evidence that dietary cholesterol has an impact on blood cholesterol levels in healthy people.)
Because the numbers are so similar, Kang says it’s best to not compare by the numbers. It’s better to focus on the quality of ingredients.
Looking at the ingredients lists on organic grass-fed beef burgers—high quality meat that’s free of hormones, antibiotics, and raised in a way that’s better for the animals and the environment— you’ll see one ingredient: beef. There may also be a few spices in there, depending on the patties you buy. On the other hand, for meat-alternative burgers like the impossible burger, ingredients include a long list with 20+ items, many of which are processed.
Beef is a natural, whole food—meaning, we eat it pretty close to the way it comes to us from nature. It’s best to eat whole foods when possible, says Kang, because there is a natural synergy among the vitamins and nutrients that we don’t really understand or know how to replicate. “When you eat a whole food, you don’t have to worry about that, but when you try to create a food that mimics a whole food, we don’t know those interactions.”
For example, both beef and these plant-based meats have a comparable amount of protein. But Kang says it’s not as equal as it looks. “The protein from meat is going to be more absorbable than from plants.” All proteins are given a score of how bioavailable the nutrient is, meaning how easily the body can absorb and use it after it’s consumed. Since animal proteins typically contain more essential amino acids than protein from plants, they are said to be more bioavailable. Red meat also is a natural source of B12 and iron, two important nutrients that are almost impossible to get enough of in a vegan diet.
The bigger issue, she adds, is that some of the processed ingredients in meat alternatives are questionable.
One big one is refined oils, like sunflower oil and coconut oil, which go through a chemical process during manufacturing that can make them go bad. Essentially, unless an oil is cold-pressed and virgin, it’s likely been refined by a process that involves high heat and results in something called oxidation, says Kang. Oxidation is a chemical process that occurs when the fat molecules interact with oxygen, usually as a result of heat being applied. Studies show that when vegetable oil is oxidized, the chemical reactions create toxic compounds that are potentially harmful to human health. “When you consume oxidized oils, [these compounds] creative oxidative stress in the body and that creates inflammation,” says Kang. Even if the oils are refined in a preferable way (like expeller-pressed, which Kang says is better than the chemical process), the amount of time they spend in the manufacturing process increases the chance the oil will oxidize before you eat it. “When you have oils in these foods that are produced, the quality of the oil is not going to be great,” says Kang.
These processed, plant-based meat alternatives also include unnecessary ingredients like maltodextrin, which is basically a type of sugar (and not found in beef), says Kang. And then there’s soy, which has its own controversies surrounding it. Kang says soy can be really healthy for you in some forms, like miso (which is fermented), but refined soy may have an estrogenic effect in the body. A recent review notes that the estrogenic effects of isoflavones, plant compounds in soy that resemble estrogen, may be problematic for women of reproductive age. Also, some people may have a difficult time digesting soy, depending on their gut microbiota. So again, it all comes back to choosing foods based on your individual health needs and concerns.
Ultimately, though, focusing on eating whole foods and quality of ingredients (not just the nutrition facts) is a good idea for everyone. “My philosophy is: Eat real food, including meat,” says Robin Berzin, M.D., CEO of Parsley Health. “While plant-based diets are a great thing, a green bean processed to look like hamburger isn’t going to be good for you. If you’re going to eat meat, eat very responsibly sourced versions of the real deal,” she says.