Are Plant-Based Meats Bad for You? An Expert Answers
As a nutritionist and athlete I get asked all the time: Are plant-based meat alternatives bad for you? That's a complicated answer since what is really bad for you is saturated fat in red meat and processed meats, which the World Health Organization has categorized as a carcinogen. Anyone trying to minimize their intake of red meat for the sake of heart health is making a sound decision, especially if they replace it with legumes, quinoa, soy and other plant-based sources of protein.
Yet it’s unrealistic to expect that someone who is plant-curious (but not fully committed to eating a vegan diet) will leap into a whole food plant-based diet and cut out meat and dairy altogether. Instead, more consumers are self-defining as "flexitarian" and trying to eat more plant-based and less meat. To that end, sales of meatless meat, or plant-based meat alternatives, have grown at a multiple of other food products. They are touted by companies that make them (including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods) as better for the planet and better for the animals, but few people actually claim say they are better for you.
These are highly processed formulas that are not as good for you as, say, a bean burger or mushroom burger you'd make in your own kitchen. Still, there is a way of determining where meatless products sit on the spectrum of health foods, and the answer is that they lie somewhere between a beef burger and a quinoa salad.
Whether you've decided to take a step toward Meatless Mondays or are considering going fully vegan or you watched a documentary like 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.
Are Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Healthy?
A 2021 study showed that plant-based meat alternatives 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 live, dietary speaking, not guilt-tripping them about their current food preferences.
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 plant-based meat alternatives over conventional meat is that they contain fiber — an essential nutrient critical for good health. An estimated 95 percent of Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of fiber per day. (At least 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men is the accepted minimal amount of fiber to aim for.) 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 plant-based meat alternatives 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 plant-based meat alternatives, once digested, causes the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which release butyrate — an important short-chain fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties that improves digestion and promotes gut health. Alternatively, red meat and dairy promote less healthy gut bacteria, which can contribute to high cholesterol and other early markers of increased risk for heart disease.
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 plant-based meat alternatives 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 greenhouse gas emissions
- 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 another popular seller, 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 plant-based meat alternatives 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 plant-based meat alternatives 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 plant-based meat alternatives with their animal-based counterparts.
|Nutrient Criteria||Plant-Based Burger(n = 50)||Meat Burger *||Plant-Based Sausages(n = 29)||MeatSausages **||Plant-Based Mince(n = 10)||MeatMince **|
|Energy (kJ)||736 ± 194||760 ± 257||735 ± 155||1157 ± 287||574 ± 238||774 ± 162|
|Protein (g)||9.7 ± 2.6||15.4 ± 2.6||13.4 ± 6.0||16.0 ± 3.1||13.7 ± 5.6||25.1 ± 4.0|
|Fat (g)||7.2 ± 4.8||13.7 ± 7.8||7.9 ± 3.8||22.1 ± 8.4||5.4 ± 5.2||9.4 ± 3.6|
|Saturated fat (g)||1.5 ± 1.6||6.2 ± 4.1||2.4 ± 2.1||8.5 ± 1.6||2.1 ± 3.1||3.9 ± 1.7|
|Carbohydrate (g)||16.7 ± 7.2||5.2 ± 1.9||11.4 ± 6.2||3.7 ± 1.5||7.9 ± 7.3||0|
|Sugars (g)||3.4 ± 3.2||1.3 ± 0.9||2.2 ± 1.9||0||1.9 ± 1.5||0|
|Dietary Fibre (g)||5.3 ± 2.3||NA||4.2 ± 1.8||0.6 ± 0.4||5.9 ± 3.4||0|
|Sodium (mg)||372 ± 1173||463 ± 119||497 ± 136||826 ± 142||401 ± 310||64 ± 12|
|Iron (mg)||3.6 ± 0.8||Not Reported||3.4 ± 0.4||3.6 ± 1.0||2.8 ± 1.0||2.1 ± 1.1|
Overall, plant-based meat alternatives 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 - 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 plant-based meat alternatives 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.
For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.