what's the real deal with plant-based meats
“Where’s the beef?” – the slogan that put the fast-food chain Wendy’s on the map a few decades ago – now has a whole new meaning. Plant-based eating is certainly a popular trend and to meet this demand, high tech food companies are now offering a unique twist in the alternative protein space.
Put simply, the goal these companies are hoping to achieve is to replicate the experience of meat in taste and texture, without being actual meat (or animal products).
It’s not just “beef” though that’s being offered; there are egg substitutes, chicken, bacon and even shrimp. Or better phrased, cultured meat that was grown in a lab, is making waves. Let’s investigate some of these latest products to sort through the hype around them and see if you should start to stock your freezer with these products or give them a hard pass.
Lab cultured animal products seem to have taken over grocery store shelves. While plant-forward diets have endless amounts of health benefits, do we need to go as far as swapping out real food for these meat-based alternatives? A lot of consumers seem to think so. The two leaders in this space are Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger.
Impossible Burger recently struck a deal with Burger King to start carrying the “Impossible Whopper” while shares of Beyond Meat are up over 700% since going public in May. The Beyond Burger is now available in select McDonald’s as a “P.L.T” – Plant. Lettuce. Tomato – so there’s definitely growing interest.
Curious what’s actually in these plant-forward products? So was I.
I dug into both websites to help you find out what might be on your plate. Beyond Burger states on their site that they are “The World’s First Plant-Based Burger That Looks, Cooks, and Satisfies like Beef without GMO’s, Soy or Gluten.”
Ingredients in the Beyond Burger include:
Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color)
And from a nutrition panel perspective, a patty provides 250 calories, 18 grams of fat and 20 grams of protein.
The Impossible Burger, on the other hand, is a bit different in terms of its ingredients but similar in its nutrition profile.
Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Contains 2% or less of the following: Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality).
Nutritionally speaking, one patty boasts 240 calories, 14 grams of fat and 19 grams of protein.
The “magic” selling point of the Impossible Burger is that it ‘bleeds’ like a regular beef patty, thanks to an ingredient called soy leghemoglobin. Pretty cool concept but, again, not sure vegans who may be looking for a beef alternative are hoping that alternative “bleeds” or, frankly, even tastes like beef. So what are those interested in meat alternatives looking for?
“People are drawn to them for what’s NOT in them (meat) but often don’t pay attention to what IS in them," says Dana White, MS, RD, Cookbook Author and Sports Dietitian, Quinnipiac University. "To get a burger that walks and talks like meat you need to use a lot of different ingredients – many of these burgers are made from processed ingredients, including soy, pea and/or rice protein concentrates, binding and thickening agents. I’m not saying this is bad, but more of a buyer beware to understand what your real goal is – simply avoiding meat or avoiding excess ingredients that aren’t naturally in foods?”
Interestingly, the other angle some take is the sustainability of these faux meat products, usually citing questionable data on the impact of animal products and their negative impact on the environment. Though much of that data is blown out of proportion, the impact of these plant-forward products isn’t quite understood this early in their “lifespan.”
Sustainability expert and dietitian, Kate Geagan, MS, RD, weighed in on this as well: “I think it’s a technology which holds enormous potential, but that there are still a lot of unknowns. For instance, a recent Friends of the Earth paper cautions that actual data on health outcomes and environmental benefits is scant and points out that many companies aren’t fully disclosing all of their ingredients or methods because they are considered confidential trade secrets.”
My take? If you’re trying to avoid meat, opt for a true veggie burger, made with, ahem, veggies and other fiber-rich ingredients – because 9/10 vegans (<< made up number but it’s likely true) aren’t usually missing a “bleeding” burger and instead want food-based ingredients to make up the majority of their diet. And a plant-forward diet is never a bad idea.
That said, keep in mind that beef itself – like, the real thing – can be enormously healthy for you, if, and only if, it’s balanced with lots of other great nutrition. As I always say, it’s not singular ingredients that matter, but what else keeps them company? In other words, is that a 12 oz blue cheeseburger engulfed in a gigantic fiber-free bun, smothered with bacon and a fried egg and being accompanied by fries and beer or is it a 4-6 oz high-quality steak that’s well balanced with colorful veggies and some fibrous grain?
It’s all perspective.
As a dietitian, it’s hard to compare these products to actual meat because they are a completely different food. Ultimately just choose a burger, beef or otherwise, you personally feel good about eating. But know what you are eating. Understanding food, where food came from and ultimately enjoying what’s on your plate is important.
Chris Mohr has a Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Nutrition from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Massachusetts, respectively. He earned his PhD in exercise physiology from the University of Pittsburgh and is a Registered Dietitian. To get more nutritional tips for Chris, follow him on Instagram: @mohrresults