The biggest trend in meat right now has nothing to do with organic beef or free-range chicken. In fact, the juiciest burger you eat this fall may be made of pea protein.
Over the last few years, imitation meat—created in a lab from plant proteins, but with a texture and juiciness that mimics animal-derived meat—has taken us light years beyond the days of Tofurky and cardboard-like veggie burgers. Today there are hamburgers, chicken wings, and sausages that look and taste as close to meat as you can get without harming a cow, chicken, or pig.
Several companies, like Gardein and Morningstar, have been selling plant-based “sausages” and “chick-n” nuggets for years, but those products were mainly marketed toward vegetarians. The new plant-based meats are hoping to revolutionize the market by appealing to meat-eaters as well, and they’re being sold in places you’d never expect a vegetarian to step foot in, like Burger King (hello, Impossible Whopper) and KFC (oh hey, vegan fried chicken).
A craze that’s spread across the country
Let’s rewind to 2016, when both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger were introduced. Instead of using ingredients such as rice, whole peas, beans, tofu, and seitan to mimic meat, the creators of these two burgers formulated a new substance that is eerily similar to animal flesh, through a combination of modified plant proteins, coconut oils that provide the sizzle, and, in the Impossible Burger, a molecule called “heme” that provides the beefy flavor. The results are hugely popular, and available in thousands of eateries across the country. In addition to fast-food restaurants such as Burger King, White Castle, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, Dunkin, and Canada’s Tim Horton’s and sit-down chains such as BareBurger and TGIFridays, upscale restaurants such as New York’s Momofuku Nishi and Le Marais are serving the Impossible Burger with their own creative toppings.
Beyond the burger, customers lined up outside a KFC in Atlanta this past August to try the chain’s Beyond Fried Chicken, and both Kellogg’s and Hormel (parent company of both Spam and Dinty Moore beef stew, for crying out loud!) recently announced the launch of plant-based meat products, including various forms of “chik-n.” Sales of meat substitutes reached $19.5 billion in 2018, according to one report, and with global climate change and public health two of the most crucial issues of our time, that number is expected to go even higher.
“I haven’t eaten meat in years, but I recently had an Impossible burger in a restaurant and it was absolutely delicious,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It. “But you have to look at the ingredients and nutrition facts to find out exactly what you’re eating, because these meat substitutes aren’t as healthy as you would think.”
How nutritious is plant-based meat?
“There is a real health halo around plant-based meats, but when you see these foods compared side by side with beef or chicken, it can be very eye-opening,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Flexitarian Diet. Even John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market—which introduced Beyond Meat’s first products in 2013 and carries its full line of burgers and sausages along with many other plant-based “meats”— recently made waves by telling CNBC that he believes the products aren’t a healthy choice. “If you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods,” he said. “I think people thrive on eating whole foods.”
If you parse out the label of the Beyond and Impossible burgers, you’ll see a very long list of ingredients, only a few of which are recognizable as whole foods. “The main ingredients are pea protein isolates and soy protein concentrates, which are extracts taken out of plants in a lab,” says Blatner. “They are not whole foods, they are just part of a food.” Both burgers include coconut and other oils, and each includes a host of ingredients such as methylcellulose, soy leghemoglobin, and zinc gluconate.
When you compare the two most popular plant-based burgers to a traditional burger made of grass-fed beef, the numbers line up in an interesting way: A 4-ounce Beyond Burger has 250 calories and the same size Impossible Burger has 240; a 4-ounce beef burger, however, has just 224, says Blatner. When it comes to saturated fat—which the American Heart Association recommends limiting, since it can increase your risk for heart disease—the Beyond and the beef burger both have 6 g, while the Impossible has 8 g (in the meatless burgers, the fat mainly comes from the coconut oil and cocoa butter). Both the Beyond and the Impossible burger tip the sodium scales with 390 mg and 370 mg, while a beef burger has just 77 mg.
In general, switching from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet can have numerous positive effects on your health: Studies have shown the vegetarian and vegan diets can cut down your risk of heart disease, cancer, type-2 diabetes, and hypertension, but simply switching from animal-based meat to plant-based meat won’t do the trick unless you add a whole lot of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to your diet as well, says Taub-Dix.
But wait, is it all about the calories and saturated fat?
Of course, any discussion about the benefits of eating plant-based meats doesn’t just stop with the nutrition label. “If you don’t eat animals because of philosophical or moral reasons—yet you still miss the taste of a burger or chicken fingers—then these plant-based meats are a great choice, as long as you think of them as a ‘sometimes’ food,” says Blatner. And the makers of both Impossible and Beyond point out, the production of their plant-based foods uses up far less land and water resources than is required to raise cattle. Since livestock production is one of the main contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, going veggie is a step towards saving the planet, as well.
So it’s okay to eat it?
According to both Blatner and Taub-Dix, you should think of plant-based meats the same way you would think of a burger made of beef, turkey, or chicken—great for a treat once a week or so, perfect to toss on the barbecue, but not an everyday meal. “If you want to eat burgers more frequently, I would recommend making a bean-based veggie burger yourself, or stocking your freezer with veggie burgers like Dr. Praeger’s, which are made with whole-food ingredients such as black beans, quinoa, carrots, broccoli, and corn,” says Taub-Dix. Those burgers have about half the calories of the newer meatless burgers, and very little saturated fat, or none at all. Granted, they taste like corn and beans and broccoli, while the Beyond Burger tastes like, well, a hamburger.
If you do decide to eat the meatless meats, Blatner says you should treat it like any other burger—by surrounding it with healthier sides, including crispy, crunchy whole vegetables. “If you’re just eating a burger for a meal, that’s bad news no matter what kind of burger it is,” she says.
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