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Your Questions — 9 minutes

Are plant-based meat alternatives a healthy diet option?

Biron

Diets with a significant proportion of red meat, particularly processed meat, have been shown to have a wide variety of health consequences. The risks of saturated fat in particular have been well documented by many studies. [1] Beyond this, significant concerns have arisen about the environmental impact of eating meat products.

In recent years, the market for alternatives to meat has been shaken up radically by the introduction of a new generation of products. Plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) — such as Impossible Foods and the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat — are designed to mimic the experience of consuming meat as closely as possible on both a sensory and nutritional level. These are now widely available in restaurants and supermarkets, and becoming an unremarkable addition to our everyday lives.

But plant-based does not necessarily mean healthier! When you compare ingredient by ingredient, and the specifics of nutritional make-up, the real story of PBMAs is surprising.

As Biron’s dietitian Catherine Drouin-Audet puts it, there are many highly transformed and processed ingredients at work. “These are not patties made from healthy and whole ingredients such as beans, vegetables, and whole grains.” she says. “When you look at both the nutritional facts and the ingredient list, it’s hard to say they’re actually a healthier choice.”

What are fake meat products really?

These new PBMAs are fundamentally different from previous options such as traditional veggie burgers based on legumes and plant components. Unlike their more straightforward predecessors, their protein content is specifically designed to compete with beef and poultry “gram for gram”, according to Emily Gelsomin, writing for the Harvard Health Blog: "Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have comparable amounts, the former deriving protein mainly from soy and the later from peas and mung beans." [2]

The big difference in the market is that meat eaters seem to really like these alternatives. A burger tastes like a burger, according to the consumer research, and many of their consumers are in fact meat eaters looking for better alternatives. [3]

In 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration expressed concern over Impossible Foods’ use of the iron-containing ingredient heme from soy plants, which provides the meat-like flavour [4], but later gave approval. There have been criticisms from consumer interest groups about the safety and health impacts of some of the ingredients, such as heme, and also of processing techniques [5]. As these products are new, there are no studies yet available on long-term effects.

When you put the ingredients side by side, and throw a couple of old-school veggie patties into the mix, the differences might seem stark.

Here are the first 10 ingredients listed in order of importance for some popular varieties (for full and updated ingredient lists, follow the links to product websites):

Traditional Beef PBMAs PBMAs PBMAs Veggie Patties Veggie Patties
Commercial beef patty Beyond Burger, Retail Beyond Burger, food service) Impossible Foods burger Gardein Chipotle Black Bean Burger Dr Praeger’s Heirloom Bean Veggie Burgers
Beef Water, Pea Protein, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Modified Food Starch Water, Cooked Black Beans, Expeller Pressed Canola Oil, Cooked Brown Rice, Roasted Yellow Corn, Onion, Tomato Paste, Soy Protein Concentrate, Roasted Red and Green Bell Peppers, Organic Cane Sugar, Potato Starch Cooked Bean Mix, Cremini Mushrooms, Tomatoes, Cooked Brown Rice, Expeller Pressed Canola Oil, Potato Flakes, Carrots, Celery, Onions, Kale

Read more: Our best apps for counting your calories and improving your digestive health

Are these products healthier?

The mission to make PBMAs as close to the meat experience as possible means they are high in fats and saturated fat: a quarter-pound retail Beyond Burger contains 6 grams of saturated fat and 250 calories, versus an equivalent beef patty with 7 grams of saturated fat and 280 calories.

Traditional Beef Traditional Beef PBMAs PBMAs PBMAs Veggie Patties Veggie Patties
Ground beef, medium Commercial beef patty Beyond Burger, Retail) Beyond Burger, Food Service Impossible Foods burger BGardein Chipotle Black Bean Burger Dr Praeger's Heirloom Bean Veggie Burgers
Size (g) 113 113 113 113 113 85 71
Energy (kcal) 314 280 250 280 240 140 130
Total fat (g) 19 18 18 20 14 6 6
Saturated fat (g) 7 7 6 6 8 0 0,5
Protein (g) 34 26 20 20 19 6 5
Sodium (mg) 86 75 300 390 370 420 250

Catherine Drouin-Audet points out the curious difference in nutritional make-up between a retail Beyond Burger and their food service product, which you’d obtain in fast food settings. Though it contains the same amount of saturated fat, the food service patty is significantly higher in both calories and sodium, and contains more fat in total.

“Why are they choosing, or allowing themselves, to put more fat and sodium in the patties sold in a setting where consumers are not going to look at the nutritional values?” she asks. “I can’t help but wonder how much of the nutritional quality they are willing to sacrifice to make their products more palatable when unexposed to the scrutiny and pressure of educated consumers.”

Overall, Drouin-Audet is disappointed in the nutritional values and ingredients of the PBMA products.

“I like the taste, but as a healthier product, to me, it doesn’t fit the label,” she says. “Unfortunately, as most processed food products, the sodium content is pretty elevated too. If you make your own regular patties, there’s probably very little sodium in there, but these are crammed with salt.”

As Gelsomin points out in the Harvard Health Blog, the products do add vitamins such as B12 and zinc in quantities equal to or greater than those found in natural meat. This can be useful for vegetarians who must otherwise find fortified sources for these nutrients which can be hard to obtain from plants alone.

There are few reliable studies yet available on the health benefits of PBMAs. In an opinion from scientists led by Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in October 2019, caution was urged in extrapolating results from previous studies on the health benefits of other plant-based foods. [6] According to Hu, there have not been enough rigorous and independent studies, but it is clear that products highly processed into a calorically dense form can lead to some loss of nutrients normally contained in the base plants.

The scientists also pointed out that these burger patties still tend to be consumed within a “fast food” context, on refined buns with various toppings and possibly accompanied by fries and a sugary drink: “It is not possible to assume that substituting a PBMA patty for a beef patty improves overall diet quality.” [6]

Read more: Hamburger meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria is not the most common cause of food poisoning

What are the other benefits and drawbacks?

For many consumers, the key benefit of PBMAs is not health – it is the environmental footprint. The companies themselves tend not to make health claims about the products, preferring to focus on the quantifiable environmental impacts.

A study by the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan, which was commissioned by Beyond Meat themselves, claimed significant benefits compared to beef across the product life cycle in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, energy use, and water use. This study did not, however, assess health impacts. This was justified with the claim that the nutritional makeup of a standard Beyond Meat burger was similar enough to that of a beef burger that “direct comparison between equal weights of [Beyond Meat] and beef is reasonable.” [7]

What’s the future for fake meat?

In the near-future, new products grown entirely in labs from cell cultures will hit the market. These may have a very different nutritional profile to this current generation of alternatives, and both will likely exist side by side. Reliable information on the nutritional value of meat alternatives will change rapidly as the companies behind them innovate, and studies on both their health and environmental impacts will need to continue.

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. “The Truth about Fats: the Good, the Bad, and the in-Between.” Harvard Health, December 11, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good.
  2. LDN, Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD. “Impossible and Beyond: How Healthy Are These Meatless Burgers?” Harvard Health Blog, August 15, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/impossible-and-beyond-how-healthy-are-these-meatless-burgers-2019081517448.
  3. O’Connor, Anahad. “Fake Meat vs. Real Meat.” The New York Times, December 3, 2019, sec. Well. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/well/eat/fake-meat-vs-real-meat.html.
  4. Mulvany, Lydia, and Deena Shanker. “Why the ‘Bloody’ Impossible Burger Faces Another FDA Hurdle.” Bloomberg, December 26, 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-12-26/why-the-bloody-impossible-burger-faces-another-fda-hurdle.
  5. Purdy, Chase. “No One Calls Plant-Based Meat What It Really Is: Ultra Processed.” Quartz. Accessed February 21, 2020. https://qz.com/1655309/beyond-meat-needs-to-communicate-how-it-makes-its-plant-based-burger/.
  6. Hu, Frank B., Brett O. Otis, and Gina McCarthy. “Can Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Be Part of a Healthy and Sustainable Diet?” JAMA 322, no. 16 (October 22, 2019): 1547. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.13187.
  7. Heller, Martin C., and Gregory A. Keoleian. “Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Life Cycle Assessment: A Detailed Comparison between a Plant-Based and an Animal-Based Protein Source .” CSS Report. Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, September 14, 2018. http://css.umich.edu/publication/beyond-meats-beyond-burger-life-cycle-assessment-detailed-comparison-between-plant-based.