Are Meatless Meats Actually Healthier? The Backlash Begins
A recent story in Vox says it all: As meatless meat goes mainstream, the backlash is building on all fronts. Critics of meatless meats such as the Impossible Whoppers and Beyond Beef burgers point out that the faux meats are highly processed, loaded with sodium, and may not be any healthier for us than the real deal. We beg to differ, but first, let's review the facts and how we got here.
When it first showed up in little upscale restaurants on either coast, the Impossible Burger was a novelty food. Could you tell the difference? Was it really as good as a burger? And did it actually "bleed?" I remember my husband, son and I trekking to a little burger joint in the East Village to see whether we liked it. I actually liked this new fun food better than the real thing, since it felt cleaner and less heavy than beef, and didn't leave the residual low-energy feeling that happens to me after eating a big meal.
But that was then. Fast forward to now: Beyond Meats has excited the world with the biggest IPO of the year, and every day there are new announcements of Beyond and Impossible faux meats showing up in restaurants, markets and food vendors across the continent. Suddenly there is a veritable food fight going on: Impossible has lined up with BK, Hard Rock, White Castle and others, while Beyond is partnering with McDonald's (in Canada so far), Dunkin Donuts and KFC, as well as Carl Jr.'s, Subway and Veggie Grill. And more new faux meats are introduced every day.
But are these truly healthy options? The Impossible Whopper has more sodium than the regular one (without cheese, since the cheese puts the traditional Whopper over the top), and pretty much all processed foods get a low grade in the "healthy" department. But what they do offer is the taste of meat without unhealthy fats, especially saturated fat, and usually fewer carbs, calories, and preservatives.
That said, if you're looking for a whole-foods patty, I'd recommend you reach for a mushroom, lentil or bean patty, each of which will deliver much of the satisfaction at a fraction of the impact. (Once you add lettuce, tomato, catchup, and pickles—your mouth fills in the rest and tells the brain: burger incoming, enjoy the taste medley).
But food is personal. The X factor is always: What will you enjoy eating? What satisfies you? And what are your priorities when choosing your next meal? If the impact of food on the planet is among your concerns, the meat alternatives win by a mile. The environmental cost of a pound of beef is well-documented, since raising cattle requires more grain, water, land, gasoline, and releases more greenhouses gases (in the form of methane) than meat alternatives. Meat is a luxury and one we can hardly afford to continue to consume at current levels if we care about the impact on our climate.
Back to your health for a sec. As the editor of a healthy lifestyle magazine for years, people would often ask me: "Is this healthy?" And hold up a yogurt cup or some other supposedly healthy snack. My answer was always the same: "Compared to what?" If you compare it to ice cream you're making the better choice, or if it satisfies your hunger and cravings or keeps you from eating too much at your next meal, then sure, it's fine. If you would have had an apple instead, then perhaps not the better choice. You need to see where on the healthy spectrum a food sits, and how an individual reacts to it. Nothing beats a vegetable grown in the ground. Think of the farm stand: If you could buy it there, it's probably going to get an A+ for healthy. Barring that, all food is basically a calculation between what makes you healthy, and whether it makes you happy.
(Athletes are an exception to this and need to choose fuel to sustain their activity. We'll use a slightly different calculation since a marathoner at mile 18 needs a gue or gel, which may not make her healthy or happy but gets her through the next eight miles without crashing. The body under stress during endurance training is a completely different topic, since salt, carbs and electrolytes are all depleted and need to be replaced while moving, and the easiest way to do it is to squirt a high-carb, high-sodium replacement into your mouth to keep going.)
At a recent Giants game, the tailgating grills were chock-o-block in the parking lot and their smoke filled the air with the smell of cooking beef. Had I walked over to a neighbor's grill and stuck a Beyond Burger on it, no one would have likely noticed, or blinked. They would have been excited to try it. Had I walked up to the same grill and added a veggie kebab of zucchini and mushrooms, onions and peppers, they would have scrunched up their noses and asked me to remove it, or rudely asked: "Why did you put that there?" Yet to me—now fully plant-based in my eating approach, that would have been my preferred choice.
"These are stepping stones to eating healthier," says Dr. Andrew M. Freeman, a plant-based cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado. Dr. Freeman tells his patients: No one is pretending these faux meats are "healthy" foods, but as a place to start, they are definitely better than the beef alternatives. And when you consider the planet they are much, much better.
The faux-meat burgers are opening the conversation right where people are willing to have it. Not at the "make them eat quinoa salad" end of the spectrum, but snuggled up right next to their preferred usual fare of burgers, sausages, fried chicken, crumbled beef and meatballs. If these faux animal products that mimic the real thing make people think, "These are delicious!" Or even, "Not bad!" then it opens the door to more plant-based eating. Think of them as a gateway food—they lead to the next plant, and the next and the next. Before you know it, we'll be adding veggie kebabs to our grills and loving it.
This Chart Tells the story:
|BK Whopper (without cheese)
|BK Impossible Whopper (without cheese)
|Bubba Beef Burger (5.3 ounces of original chuck, cooked)
|Bubba Turkey Burger (4 ounces of all-natural turkey, cooked)
|Dr. Praeger's California Veggie Burger (2.5 ounces, cooked)
|Gardein Chipotle Black Bean Burgers (almost 3 ounces)