Here’s how these new plant-based proteins stack up.
Sage Canaday, a long-distance runner for Hoka One One and plant-based athlete, eats meat alternatives about once a week. He finds them more accessible on the road than other plant-based foods such as tofu or tempeh. “When I’m traveling and eat out at restaurants, or even fast food, these are always great options for me,” he says.
These new plant-based protein options, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, have made it easier for vegetarian runners to eat on the go. You can’t miss the Burger King commercials showing off how people can’t believe the “Impossible Whopper” isn’t made from meat. McDonald’s has been testing a Beyond Meat burger in Canadian markets, and KFC is experimenting with Beyond fried chicken, which sold out in less than five hours at one Atlanta location. While faux meats are easier than ever to find right now, it does leave you wondering: Are plants that are manipulated into fake burgers, chicken, and shrimp even nutritious? That question is up for debate.
What we do know is what’s in them and what they taste like. If you were to compare an Impossible Burger and a beef burger side-by-side, chances are you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference just by looking at or even tasting them.
The way producers make meat alternatives taste so similar to the real thing is different for each product: Impossible Foods, for example, uses soy leghemoglobin, a protein found in plants that carries heme (an iron-containing molecule) to give the burger a “meaty” taste and the ability to “bleed” like real meat. Beyond Meat utilizes a combination of heating, cooling, pressurizing, and layering in plant-based fats, binders, flavors, and colors to create the texture of meat.
In terms of ingredients, the Impossible Burger’s list is long, but soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, and coconut oil make up the majority of the patty. Soy leghemoglobin is the protein that adds the flavor, and fillers and binders include cultured dextrose and food starch. Beyond Burger is made with a mixture of pea, mung bean, and rice to deliver a complete protein with a meaty texture, and the company proudly boasts that no GMOs, soy, or gluten are used in its products.
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These complicated ingredients and processes are a far departure from traditional veggie burgers made with beans, grains, and vegetables. Not to mention that those burgers don’t look, taste, or bleed like beef.
But just because these new alternatives are plant-based doesn’t mean they’re good for you. “The purpose of a plant-based diet is to consume more plants, not faux meats that are highly-processed foods,” says Angie Asche, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition. Plus, research from the National Institutes of Health links processed food consumption with weight gain and excess calorie intake.
While plant-based foods are usually lower in calories and fats, the nutrition stats of alt meat don’t differ that much from those of the real thing. For example, 4-ounce servings of Impossible meat and Beyond Burger have comparable calories and saturated fats as a 4-ounce serving of lean beef, thanks to the alt meats’ coconut and sunflower oils. Where they do differ is in sodium and cholesterol, containing much more salt but no harmful cholesterol.
Regardless, the real reason you find these alternatives on menus and in the meat section of the supermarket is not because they’re health heroes, nor because they’re for vegetarians and vegans to enjoy more meatlike products. Rather, manufacturers hope to entice meat eaters into eating more plants in an effort to protect the environment.
Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat claim to have created their products to help solve environmental problems associated with livestock. Research suggests that meat production contributes to harmful environmental practices, such as methane emissions and the conversion of land to agriculture. Tamika Sims, Ph.D., director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, says, “All human activity, including agriculture, which includes meat production and crop development (edible crops and those used for animals, textiles, and energy), impacts climate change.”
In theory, eating more plants and less meat seems like a viable option to counteract these detrimental effects; yet Sims says this isn’t necessarily true. “The EPA has noted that agriculture contributes nine percent of our greenhouse gas emissions—with only one-third of that attributable to livestock—in the United States, while transportation contributes almost 29 percent,” says Sims. She also notes that while no quantifiable environmental data exists on the development of these new products, it’s unlikely that they have zero environmental footprint. In other words, eating a plant-based meat alternative may help reduce only the three percent of greenhouse gases attributable to meat production, if even that much.
The bottom line is that fake meat products are made to look, feel, taste, and cook like meat in an attempt to persuade carnivores, omnivores, and flexitarians to eat less animal-based food. (In fact, some of our vegan testers were grossed out by the realism of the “bloodiness.”) So while the jury is still out on whether or not these products are better for the planet, they aren’t necessarily better for you.
That said, if you’re curious, there’s no harm in giving these products a try. But do so (surprise, surprise!) in moderation. Rather than going full vegetarian or vegan, you can simply swap out a day or two in the week during which you eat all plant-based meals.
Not sold? You can always just eat more good old-fashioned plants. Canaday attributes a 20-year athletic career to his plant-based lifestyle. “I’ve never had an overuse injury for more than two weeks, and I think that’s from eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” he says. “I get the essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants my body needs to recover from high mileage and hard workouts.”
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