Are Plant-Based “Meats” Healthier than Meats?

 
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Now that we know about the history of plant-based meat alternatives and what exactly goes into many "meats," it's time to find out whether  plant-based meats are healthier than animal meats.

I'm afraid there's not one simple answer to this question. Each type of plant-based meat contains different nutrients.

So let's speak generally for a moment. Here are a few positive aspects of replacing traditional meats with plant-based meat alternatives:

  • Plant-based meats contain fiber, while animal meats do not contain fiber. Fiber is found only in plants and promotes a healthy digestive tract as well as reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and diverticular disease.
  • There is a strong scientific link between consuming red and processed meats and several types of cancer as well as heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting red meat and including more whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. 
  • Replacing red and processed meat with plant-based meat is associated with a 25–40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 40% reduction in nitrogen emissions, and a 23% per capita reduced use of cropland for food production.
  • Plant-based meats tend to be lower in total fat and harmful saturated fat than red meat and processed meats.

There are also some negative aspects of replacing meats with plant-based meat alternatives:

  • Animal meats are good sources of zinc, iron, and vitamin B12; not all plant-based meat makers add these nutrients to their products.
  • Plant-based meats tend to be higher in sodium than red meats, while most processed meats (sausage, lunch meat, hot dogs, etc) typically are high in sodium
  • Some plant-based meats include added sugars that are never found in red meat; some types of processed meats, however, may contain added sugars.
  • All plant-based meats are processed to some degree, and some are highly-processed.

So, what's a person to do? Here's what we suggest:

  • Choose plant-based meats that contain legumes, vegetables, nuts, and seeds – whole foods that contain a variety of nutrients that are crucial for good health.
  • Avoid products that contain more than 800mg sodium per serving.
  • If you have celiac disease or are intolerant to gluten, avoid plant-based meats containing seitan or vital wheat gluten.
  • If you are allergic to soy, nuts, or seeds read the ingredient lists carefully to make sure you’re purchasing products that do not contain these items.
  • Choose plant-based products with additional iron, zinc, and B12 to more closely replace the nutrients naturally found in meat.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC

References:

  1. Research and Markets. Global Plant-Based Meat Market Report 2021-2027. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/04/02/2203833/28124/en/Global-Plant-Based-Meat-Market-Report-2021-2027-Market-is-Forecast-to-Reach-14-9-Billion-Opportunities-in-Innovation-New-Product-Launches-Partnership-and-Merger-Acquisition.html  published 4-2-21; accessed 9-27-21
  2. Smithsonian Magazine. The history of the veggie burger. K. Annabelle Smith. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/history-veggie-burger-180950163/ published 3-19-14. Accessed 9-25-21
  3. Medical News Today. Is Plant-based meat healthy? Louisa Richards https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/is-plant-based-meat-healthy#what-is-it  published 8-24-21; accessed 9-25-21 
  4. Curtain F, Grafenauer S. Plant-Based Meat Substitutes in the Flexitarian Age: An Audit of Products on Supermarket Shelves. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2603. Published 2019 Oct 30. doi:10.3390/nu11112603
  5. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Fiber. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/  accessed 9-27-21
  6. American Heart Association. The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations?uid=1908  last reviewed 8-15-17; accessed 9-27-21
  7. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, Garnett T, Tilman D, DeClerck F, Wood A, Jonell M, Clark M, Gordon LJ, Fanzo J, Hawkes C, Zurayk R, Rivera JA, De Vries W, Majele Sibanda L, Afshin A, Chaudhary A, Herrero M, Agustina R, Branca F, Lartey A, Fan S, Crona B, Fox E, Bignet V, Troell M, Lindahl T, Singh S, Cornell SE, Srinath Reddy K, Narain S, Nishtar S, Murray CJL. Lancet. 2019 Feb 2; 393(10170):447-492.
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