Plant-Based Meat | What’s Inside and is it Good For You?

Written by
Karen Eisenbraun @ 8fit
Written by
Karen Eisenbraun @ 8fit
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Veggie burgers have been around for a long time, but anyone who’s tried a frozen veggie burger from the supermarket knows that they don’t always taste that great. Veggie burgers are often dry and crumbly, and although they have a reputation for being healthier than meat, they’re often made with ingredients such as soy and gluten, which many people can’t eat.

The plant-based meat industry has seen tremendous growth in the past few years, with the introduction of new products designed to mimic the taste and texture of real meat. While meat alternatives have traditionally been marketed to vegetarians and vegans, the newer products are also marketed towards meat lovers as a more environmentally friendly option. They are now showing up at fast-food chains as well as in supermarkets. 

These meat alternatives are made with plant-based fats, binders, fruit, and vegetable-based colors and flavors. They are manufactured with a process of heating, cooling, and pressure to achieve a fibrous meat-like texture.

Plant-based meat alternatives have been tremendously successful. British bakery chain Greggs reported a 58% increase in profits after launching a vegan sausage roll that consistently sold out during its first few weeks on the menu. 

In Canada, A&W’s Beyond Meat burger also sold out during its first few weeks and has since become one of the restaurant’s most popular burgers. Other restaurants that have embraced plant-based meat products include Burger King, KFC, Carl’s Jr., Subway, Denny’s, Dunkin, and TGI Friday’s. The market for plant-based meat alternatives is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2023.

But what’s actually in these new plant-based meats? And are they actually good for you? There are two big players in the new evolution of plant-based meat products: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Take a look at what’s in their products. 

Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat is the creator of the Beyond Burger, which is marketed as the world’s first plant-based burger that “looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef without GMOs, soy, or gluten.”

The company’s product line also includes meatless “ground beef” and sausage links.

The products can be found in supermarkets in the meat aisle and are also offered at many popular restaurants. 

Beyond Burger

The Beyond Burger, which comes in pre-formed plant-based patties, contains 20g of plant protein. It’s marketed as a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids. 

The protein sources used in the Beyond Burger are pea protein isolate, mung bean protein, and rice protein. Peas are legumes, and anyone with a legume allergy or sensitivity should use caution when adding pea protein to their diet. However, because the burgers are free of soy, gluten, and peanuts, they are suitable for many specialty diets.

Read more about the best vegan protein sources.

One patty also contains only three grams of carbohydrates, which makes them suitable for a low-carb diet. Other ingredients include canola oil, natural flavors, coconut oil, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract for color. 

Most of these ingredients are pretty recognizable, which is a good thing. You can feel comfortable eating ingredients like coconut oil, cocoa butter, and apple extract. Methylcellulose is a chemical compound, taken from vegetable cellulose, that is commonly used as a binder in food products. It’s considered non-toxic and non-allergenic.

Natural flavors among ingredients may sound harmless, but it’s a fairly meaningless term that has not been defined by the FDA. Compounds that fall under the umbrella of natural flavors may contain various chemicals, and food manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the sources of these additives.

Canola oil is widely recognized as a source of inflammatory omega-6 fats. It’s difficult to avoid all inflammatory foods, but use caution with products containing canola oil. You should also make sure your diet contains plenty of anti-inflammatory foods and antioxidants.

Other Beyond Meat products

The Beyond Foods ground beef contains the same ingredients as the Beyond Burger and also provides 20g of protein per serving.

The Beyond Sausage, which is available in Brat Original or Hot Italian, is formulated to look and taste more like pork. Ingredients in the sausage are slightly different. Both sausage varieties contain pea protein isolate and rice protein, but use fava bean protein rather than mung bean protein. The sausage provides 16g of protein per serving and is also soy-free and gluten-free.

Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods is the manufacturer of the Impossible Burger, which is also available in restaurants and grocery stores. The Impossible Burger is made with soy, textured wheat protein, and potato protein, so it is not suitable for people who are sensitive to soy or gluten.

The Impossible Burger also contains coconut oil, sunflower oil, methylcellulose, and a plant-based heme compound made via the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. According to the manufacturer, heme is what gives meat its flavor, and their soy-based heme is the key to the Impossible Burger’s meat-like flavor. 

Other ingredients include natural flavors, konjac gum, xanthan gum, thiamin, zinc, niacin, vitamin B3, riboflavin, and vitamin B12.

It’s important to note that Impossible Foods does not promise any potential health benefits of their products. Rather, the company’s goal is to “make our global food system truly sustainable.”

The inclusion of ingredients such as wheat, soy, and genetically engineered yeast means that this might not be the best go-to meat alternative if you’re looking for a healthier alternative to meat. 

Plant-based meats: are they healthy?

Plant-based meat has a reputation for being healthier than real meat, but that may not necessarily be true. While plant-based meat is certainly better for the environment, many brands contain ingredients that aren’t actually better for your health.

Any food that attempts to replicate another food is going to be highly processed, and processed foods are generally unhealthy. Plant-based meats may be something that can be enjoyed as an occasional indulgence but shouldn’t be considered a dietary staple. 

For a healthy burger alternative, you’re better off making your own black bean burger or a quinoa patty. Or, simply grill up a portabella mushroom cap and top it with your favorite burger fixings. 

Better for the environment

There’s no denying that plant-based meat is better for the environment. A study commissioned by Beyond Meat with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan revealed that compared to the traditional beef, plant-based burgers require 45% less energy, require less water and land use, and generate 90% less greenhouse gas emissions.

If Americans switched from beef to plant-based alternatives, it would be equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road for an entire year.

They’re also great transition foods for those wanting to experience the health benefits of a plant-based diet. For people who want to eat less meat but whose palates are used to eating processed foods, it can be a great way to transition to a more plant-based diet. 

People who are already accustomed to a whole foods, plant-based diet may enjoy a burger made with black beans and sweet potatoes. However, people who are used to eating a typical Western diet are going to prefer an option that’s designed to look and taste like real meat. Eventually, they might begin to include more plant foods in their diet. 

The bottom line: the new plant-based meats are definitely better for the environment and can help meat eaters transition to a plant-based diet. If you’re already eating a plant-based diet, there aren’t necessarily any health benefits to including them in your diet. But if every once in a while you crave a real burger, they just may do the trick.

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Featured image courtesy of Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)

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