With the proliferation of new plant-based meat options, many are left wondering about their nutritional value. We're not discussing traditional options like black bean burgers or tofu; we're focused on those faux meat products – the beef-like crumbles, imitation sausages, chicken substitutes, and burgers that mimic real meat even in the way they "bleed" when cooked. Are these products truly a healthier choice?
As consumers, we find ourselves scrutinizing packaging labels and scouring websites for nutritional information and ingredient lists. Yet, it often seems that the ingredients listed bear little resemblance to what we might expect from something derived from plants.
There is a division in the market between two distinct approaches to adding more plant-based foods. The ongoing debate revolves around whether these highly processed plant-based meats should be categorized as 'processed foods' which are known as unhealthy choices or 'plant foods' which are considered healthier.
While the foundation of plant-based meats is typically plant-based ingredients like soybeans, peas, and wheat, these components undergo extensive processing. In most cases, primary ingredients are refined into high-protein, low-fiber, colorless powders, which are then combined with preservatives, oils, natural or artificial colorings, gums, and seasonings.
Here are some key considerations when evaluating the healthiness of plant-based meats:
Plant-Based Meat: Drawbacks The "plant-based" label doesn't guarantee healthfulness, as many of these products are highly processed and lack essential nutrients found in whole plant foods.
Processing Strips Nutrients: Due to extensive processing, plant-based meats often lack the beneficial nutrients found in whole plant foods, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, monounsaturated fats, and polyphenols.
Controversial Ingredients: Plant-based meat alternatives can contain higher sodium levels compared to animal meats and may include added sugars, artificial colorings, and controversial additives like carrageenan and methylcellulose.
Higher Cost: Plant-based meat products can be costly, with a per-pound price twice that of animal meats according to a 2021 report from the Good Food Institute.
When shopping for plant-based meats, it's important to note that "plant-based" doesn't necessarily mean "vegan." Some products may contain eggs, cheese, or milk, so be sure to check the ingredient list if you're seeking a 100% plant-based option. If you're concerned about GMO soy or refined oils, look for products labeled organic or Non-GMO Project Verified, or those indicating sustainably sourced or expeller-pressed oils. Additionally, consider choosing products with no added sugars, 2 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 575 milligrams of sodium per serving for a healthier option.