In the Wake of Food Shortages, Plant-Based Meats Fill the Gap

From grocery stores to fast food, meat alternatives have gone mainstream

Plant based burger

Key Takeaways:

  • Plant-based meats are usually high in protein, sustainably produced, and higher in fiber than animal meats.
  • Many plant-based meats are ultra-processed, high in sodium and saturated fat, and more expensive than animal meats.

Plant-based meat is big business these days. Everywhere from your local grocery store to the Burger King drive-thru, you’ve likely noticed an influx of faux beef, chicken, sausages, and other “meats” that grew in the ground, not on a feedlot. And unlike bygone days, when fake meats seemed like a second-best alternative for vegans and vegetarians, more and more omnivores are now exploring them.

Case in point: between March 2019 and March 2020, demand for uncooked plant-based meats increased by a whopping 280% in the U.S. And according to May 2020 data from the International Food Information Council, of over 1,000 American adults surveyed, 28% reported they had eaten more plant-based protein in the last year. (17% stated they had eaten more plant-based meat, specifically, since 2019.)

While fears of meat shortages related to Covid-19 have spurred some consumers toward vegetarian alternatives, others may simply be drawn to these products for the promise of better health.

Why This Matters

It's easy to get caught up in the latest food craze, but it's important to learn the facts, assess the needs of you and your family, and talk to your doctor if you have questions about changes to your diet.

So are plant-based meats genuinely a better choice—for your health, your wallet, and the environment—than their animal counterparts? Here’s a look at the pros and cons.

Pros of Plant-Based Meat       

They Add Fiber

A myriad of nutrients matter to good health, but there’s one dietary rock star that promotes gut health, improves digestion, reduces cholesterol, and more: fiber. However, only about 5% of Americans meet their daily requirement. Plant-based meats can help fill this gap.

Where animal meat contains no fiber whatsoever, meats made of plants typically add at least some of this nutrient. The Impossible Burger, for example, comes with 3 grams, while Field Roast’s grain-based frankfurters add 6 grams and Morningstar Farms’ Chik’n Strips have 2 grams. To get the most fiber, choose faux meats made of lentils, mushrooms, pea protein, and/or whole grains.

They’re a Good Source of Protein

A typical concern around plant-based meat is its protein content. Can a patty made of peas or soy really match a hearty beef burger, protein-wise? While they may not always live up to beef’s top-tier status, many plant-based meats are still good sources of protein. Sweet Earth’s Awesome Burger, for one, clocks in at 26 grams—over half the Daily Value of 50 grams and significantly more than a beef burger’s 20 grams. Gardein’s meatless chik’n strips and Field Roast’s lentil sage deli slices are other high-protein choices, with 20 grams and 17 grams, respectively. When in doubt about a plant-based meat’s protein supply, check nutrition labels.

Remember, too, that even when plant-based meats don’t contain quite as much protein as their animal-based counterparts, getting enough of this macronutrient doesn’t tend to be a serious problem for most Americans.

They Take the Place of Red Meat

If soy crumbles or a veggie burger eliminate a serving of red meat from your diet, count this as a bonus. According to the National Institutes of Health, eating red meat on a regular basis can not only increase your risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers—it may actually shorten your lifespan. The more you can cut back on red meat, the better.

They’re Better for the Environment

Health isn’t the only consideration when it comes to choosing plant-based meats; environmental impact is another major factor. The United Nations reports that the production of beef (and cows’ milk) contributes more to greenhouse gasses than any other source. Emissions from other meat animals like chickens and pigs follow closely behind. Plants, on the other hand, help balance the greenhouse effect.

“The current impact that livestock production is having on the environment is definitely a concern,” says dietitian Ryan Andrews, RD, principal nutritionist at Precision Nutrition.

“Mainly this has to do with the inefficiencies in land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, waste production, and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plus, you have other food safety considerations, the inhumane treatment of most farm animals, and the dangerous conditions for workers involved in slaughter and meatpacking. Plant-based meats seem to offer some reprieve in these areas.”

Cons of Plant-Based Meat 

They’re Ultra-Processed

With their many advantages, plant-based meats might seem like a no-brainer. But these products aren’t without their drawbacks. First, making plants appear and taste like meat takes some serious work—and in the food world, that work is known as processing. In fact, many plant-based meats are considered not only processed, but ultra-processed, defined in nutrition research as a food with an industrial formulation of five or more ingredients.

Consuming ultra-processed foods may spell trouble for health. Studies have linked these not-found-in-nature items to cancer risk, obesity, and hypertension. “Ultra-processed foods don't seem to lead to favorable health outcomes, and plant-based meats fall under the ultra-processed category.” says Andrews. However, moderation matters, too. “As long as someone isn't building their diet around plant-based meats, then my level of concern is lowered.”

They May Be High in Sodium and Saturated Fat

With ultra-processing comes added sodium and fat for flavor. Many plant-based meats harbor troubling amounts of these nutrients. The Impossible Burger’s 370 milligrams of sodium (16% DV), for example, far outpaces a plain beef burger’s 66 milligrams. It also provides nearly double the amount of saturated fat, at 8 grams (40% DV) versus 4.4 grams. While this isn’t the case for every plant-based meat, it’s always smart to check food labels for these red flags.

Their Health Halo May Lead to Extra Indulgence

There’s more to the psychology of faux meats than replicating savory taste and texture. Your own sense of making a healthy choice may influence your thinking, perhaps “tricking” you into allowing extra indulgences, like mayo and cheese atop a plant-based burger, or opting out of healthy choices later in the day. 

“I encourage people to treat plant-based meat similar to meat from animals, which is, find your minimal effective dose, and don't let it crowd out the most health promoting (and sustainable) foods,” says Andrews. “These include vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.”

They May Be Expensive

Finally, there’s the all-important question of cost. Many faux meats simply are not budget-friendly. According to data reported in Forbes in 2019, at supermarkets, plant-based meats cost an average of 10 cents per gram, compared with 4 cents for beef and 2 cents for chicken, pork, and turkey. For many families, plant-based meats simply may not be accessible.

A Word From Verywell 

While they may have sustainability in their favor, plant-based meats aren’t a perfect substitute for the real thing—for taste or for health. However, including them in your diet occasionally isn’t a bad idea, especially if they take the place of red meat.

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