A Guide to Plant-Based Meats

With plant-based eating gaining popularity around the world, a new wave in food science and technology has emerged that is specifically focused on the development of “fake meat” or plant-based meats. You’ve probably heard about these products in the news and on social media and may have even tried some of the products out yourself. Many people have questions about what these products are made of and if they are a better or healthier option than traditional meat. Here’s a quick breakdown of what plant-based meat is and helpful information to know.

If you have ever dabbled in making or eating plant-based dishes, you might be familiar with plant-based sources of protein like tofu, lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds. These foods are delicious and are a great source of protein in meals that do not contain meat. The developers of plant-based meat took to the lab to use these and other ingredients to create a meat alternative that resembles meat in certain aspects. Their goal was to replicate the sensation, color, texture, and taste of real meat utilizing only plant-based ingredients. These products are made from “isolated protein” (meaning the high-protein food has gone through a process to isolate the protein from the fat, lactose, gluten, and other components found in these foods). Various additives are then needed for the protein isolate to look and taste like real meat. For example, the brand Beyond Meat adds beetroot extract to its imitation ground meat product to mimic the color change you see when a beef burger is cooked.

Plant-based meat comes in many different forms. Essentially, you can find a “fake meat” version of almost all of the different types of meat you see in the grocery store, whether it’s ground meat, grilled meat, sausages, etc.

Is “fake meat” a better option?

Advocates for plant-based meat highlight the positive environmental impact of these products in comparison to their animal-based counterparts. Research has shown that farming methods used to produce traditional animal-based food products are responsible for a large portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The idea is that introducing more plant-based alternatives will greatly reduce the amount of animals needed for beef production and therefore will reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall. Beyond Meat claims that when making their plant-based meat burger patty, they produce 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, utilize 99% less water and 93% less land than needed to produce a traditional beef patty. Although there are some valid points made in relation to the impact of plant-based on the environment, these products are fairly new and there still is a lot more research that needs to be done. Plant-based meat is undoubtedly an ultra-processed food product (as opposed to something like a bean which is a “whole food”) and ultra-processed foods have been widely criticized as not being very environmentally sustainable. Additionally, its production method raises concerns about the impact on the agricultural workforce.

When it comes to the healthfulness of plant-based meats, some people say that these products are a healthier option to regular meat. This is not completely true and there are some important factors to be aware of. Although incorporating some plant-based foods has been seen to have a positive impact on certain health markers like cholesterol levels, it does not appear that plant-based meat is inherently “healthier” than regular meat. Dietitians recommend including a large amount of whole foods into your

diet as they are the most supportive to your health and regular meat like chicken, beef, pork, fish, etc.. are often whole foods. As mentioned earlier, many additives are needed to make plant-based meat taste and look like real meat and so it is classified as an “ultra-processed food”. Ingredients in these products vary by brand and so it is important to take a look at the nutrition label for more info. Researchers found that some “plant-based ground beef” products contained up to 6 times more sodium and more saturated fat than traditional ground beef, though there is less sodium in some “plant-based meat sausages” than traditional meat sausages.

These plant-based meat products have expanded the options available for people looking for a plant-based protein not only at the grocery store but also at restaurants and fast food joints. For example, you can now get a plant-based meat alternative at many chains including Starbucks, KFC, Burger King, and Chipotle. Even local restaurants often have these products available. The products are so similar to the real thing that many people who would not typically be open to a plant-based option are willing to give these a try, and most of the time people are pleasantly surprised by how similar the experience is to eating an animal-based product.

These products are innovative and new plant-based options. If you are interested in trying a plant-based alternative that tastes super similar to traditional meat, plant-based meat can be exciting to try and potentially offers some environmental benefits over animal-based products. As for everyday plant-based meals: tofu, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds are great whole-food options that provide a good source of protein and fiber to your meals.

Dietitian Katelyn