It’s unrealistic to expect that someone who is plant-curious is going to leap into a fully plant-based diet and decide to cut out meat and dairy altogether. Instead, more people are self-defining as "flexitarian" and trying to eat more plant-based, and less meat. To that end, sales of meatless meat, or meat alternatives, are growing at a multiple of other food products. They are touted as better for the planet, better for the animals, but few companies actually come right out and say they are better for you.

Whether you've decided to take a step toward Meatless Mondays or are considering going fully vegan or you watched a documentary like Forks Over Knives or What the Health and want to cut way back on meat, you may be wondering, are those plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) actually good for me? We are here to answer that question and clear up some common misperceptions about the role meatless protein plays in the future of our food systems.

Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Help People Enjoy Eating Less Meat

A 2021 study showed that PBMAs that mimic meat in taste, texture, and experience could help people who can’t imagine a life without meat shift their diets away from animal products. Instead of eating foods produced by a grossly inefficient food system, people can enjoy the experience of many of their favorite meat dishes in a more sustainable plant form. The best way to get more people to eat more plants is by meeting them where they’re at, not guilt-tripping them for their food choices.

Like many of us, you may want to help combat climate change and reduce animal suffering without sacrificing your favorite foods. To help you in your decision, here are the pros and cons of swapping meat for plant-based alternatives.

The Pros of Plant-Based Meats

1. Rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients.

The most significant advantage of PBMAs over conventional meat is that they contain fiber—an essential nutrient critical for good health. An estimated 95 percent of Americans don’t consume recommended amounts of fiber. And when it comes to gut health, fiber plays a key role in digestion and cultivating beneficial bacteria for a healthy microbiome.

In a recent study of 40 people, researchers looked at the impact of PBMAs on gut health. Participants who replaced animal meat with plant alternatives for several weeks experienced an “increased metabolizing potential of butyrate.” Meaning? The fiber in PBMAs, once digested, causes healthy gut bacteria to release butyrate — an important short-chain fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties that improves digestion and promotes gut health.

In addition to fiber, PBMAs can pack more nutrition than animal meat. “Plant-based meats are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that animal meats lack,” explains Brittany Lubeck, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition writer. “Because of their nutrition profile, eating more plant-based foods has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.”

2. Better for the environment

With the global population expected to increase for the remainder of the century and the effects of climate change already being felt, there hasn’t been a better time to swap meat for plant-based alternatives to reduce your environmental footprint substantially. “As the global population grows, the negative environmental impacts of animal [agriculture] may become even worse. This means it may take a large plant-based meat movement to make a difference on the environment,” observes Lubeck.

Plant agriculture requires significantly less land, water, and energy than animal agriculture. Consequently, eating a plant-forward diet that includes PBMAs is one of the most effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) and agricultural land use related to food production and consumption. By choosing PBMAs over conventional meat, you’re supporting companies in favor of helping the environment.

Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are part of the growing sustainability trend. In 2017, Beyond Meat engaged the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan to assess the Beyond Burger. When compared to a quarter pound of beef, the results found that the Beyond Burger:

3. Generates 90 percent less GHGE

  • Requires 46 percent less energy
  • Has 99 percent less impact on water scarcity
  • Has 93 percent less impact on land use

Similar results were found for the Impossible Burger, which has an 89 percent lower carbon footprint than beef burgers. The statistics leave no doubt that PBMAs are the better option for the planet when compared to conventional meat.

4. Lower risk of heart disease

Research says that choosing the veggie burger over a sirloin can significantly lower your risk of heart disease. A small 2020 study examined the effects of animal-based meat and PBMAs on heart health. Researchers had 36 people include animal meat as part of their typical diet for eight weeks, then swap the meat for PBMAs for another eight weeks while keeping the rest of their diet the same as before.

Researchers observed that the PBMA stage improved several cardiovascular disease risk factors, including reduced TMAO and cholesterol, due to less saturated fat and increased fiber intake. Also, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating more plant protein in place of animal protein for reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Cons of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

1. They’re highly processed and not as healthy as whole foods

“One con of plant-based meats is they’re not always the better-for-you option, making it somewhat difficult to choose the best brands,” Lubeck says. “Some plant-based meats are just as high or higher in sodium and saturated fat than animal meats, which may not be suitable for people with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney disease.”

Many PBMAs contain added sugars, hydrogenated oils, high amounts of sodium, and other filler ingredients to enhance flavor and modify the texture to more closely resemble animal meat, according to a 2019 study published in Nutrients.

A few of the regular additives to plant-based meat are controversial, such as carrageenan which while deemed safe by the FDA, is known to cause inflammation. Look at the label. If the item has more than ten ingredients, chances are it's a highly processed food with many additives that should be parsed individually for their health value.

The following table compares the nutrients of various PBMAs with their animal-based counterparts.

Nutrient CriteriaPlant-Based Burger(n = 50)Meat Burger *Plant-Based Sausages(n = 29)MeatSausages **Plant-Based Mince(n = 10)MeatMince **
Energy (kJ)736 ± 194760 ± 257735 ± 1551157 ± 287574 ± 238774 ± 162
Protein (g)9.7 ± 2.615.4 ± 2.613.4 ± 6.016.0 ± 3.113.7 ± 5.625.1 ± 4.0
Fat (g)7.2 ± 4.813.7 ± 7.87.9 ± 3.822.1 ± 8.45.4 ± 5.29.4 ± 3.6
Saturated fat (g)1.5 ± 1.66.2 ± 4.12.4 ± 2.18.5 ± 1.62.1 ± 3.13.9 ± 1.7
Carbohydrate (g)16.7 ± 7.25.2 ± 1.911.4 ± 6.23.7 ± 1.57.9 ± 7.30
Sugars (g)3.4 ± 3.21.3 ± 0.92.2 ± 1.901.9 ± 1.50
Dietary Fibre (g)5.3 ± 2.3NA4.2 ± 1.80.6 ± 0.45.9 ± 3.40
Sodium (mg)372 ± 1173463 ± 119497 ± 136826 ± 142401 ± 31064 ± 12
Iron (mg)3.6 ± 0.8Not Reported3.4 ± 0.43.6 ± 1.02.8 ± 1.02.1 ± 1.1

Overall, PBMAs are the healthier option when compared to animal-based meat. However, in the pursuit of mimicking meat, PBMAs are highly processed products that are no match when compared to whole plant foods in terms of delivering health benefits. It’s worth noting that research still needs to be done on the long-term health effects of regularly consuming plant-based meat.

2. More expensive than meat

The cost of PBMAs is a major deterrent for many people. Currently, plant-based meat products are on average 38 percent more expensive than animal meat, according to a new report by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab (AAL).  Fortunately, lower prices are on the horizon. A recent report from the Good Food Institute (GFI) projects that plant-based meat products will be cheaper than conventional meat by 2023, giving customers more affordable options when shopping for alternative proteins.

The Bottom Line: Plant-based meats are better for your health and the planet — but consume in moderation.

Plant-based meat products contain more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients, and have a significantly smaller environmental impact than conventional meat. Although PBMAs are heavily processed and high in sodium and saturated fat, they can be part of a healthful diet when enjoyed in moderation and in place of animal products.

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