An increasing number of people in the United States are eating plant-based meats for health, ethical, or environmental reasons. However, brands of plant-based meat vary in their nutrient density and have different nutritional strengths and shortcomings. A person should always be mindful of their nutritional intake and how it may affect their health.
Many people believe that eating more plant-based food will benefit both their health and the environment. Plant-based meat could be a sustainable answer to global environmental concerns. However, some people may have doubts as to whether it provides the same nutrients as meat.
This article looks at different types of plant-based meats, what manufacturers use to make them, and their pros and cons. It also analyzes the nutritional content of plant-based mince compared with ground beef.
Finally, it gives tips on how to choose healthier plant-based meats and what to look for on packaging labels.
What is plant-based meat?
Plant-based meat is a term that people use to describe foods that mimic meat products but are made from plants. These products include vegetarian-friendly alternatives for the following types and forms of meat and fish:
- ground meat
Manufacturers use a variety of products to make plant-based, or “fake,” meats. Some products are suitable for vegans, while others contain non-vegan ingredients, such as egg and milk. Ingredients that brands use in plant-based meat products can include:
- vital wheat gluten or seitan
- soy and tofu
- pea protein
- potato starch
- coconut oil
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
There is huge variety in the types of products that people can purchase in stores and restaurants. For example, a plant-based burger might be a simple patty consisting of mushrooms and beans, or it might contain pea protein, soy, or seitan to give it an authentic meat-like texture.
Are plant-based meats healthy?
Plant-based ingredients are a source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which all have health benefits. Furthermore, research indicates that plant-based diets can be beneficial for weight management, diabetes, and the microbiome. It also suggests that they may help prevent various health issues, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, official organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are concerned about carcinogens in red and processed meats that may increase cancer risk. The American Heart Association (AHA) advises that eating more plant protein instead of meat may improve heart health.
However, some plant-based products contain fillers and added sodium and may be high in saturated fats. In addition, although some manufacturers add vitamin B12 — which is essential for the body — to their products, others do not, which makes plant-based meats inferior in this regard. Plant-based meats may also have less zinc and other minerals than regular meat.
Plant-based meats do contain different nutrients than meat products, but they are not all healthy. The nutritional content of both meats and plant-based substitutes varies depending on the specific product a person chooses.
Comparing the two types reveals both pros and cons to plant-based meats.
Pro: Less red meat can mean a lower risk of heart disease
In a small 2020 study, researchers asked 36 people to eat meat products as part of their usual diet for 8 weeks and then swap meat products for plant-based ones for 8 weeks while keeping the rest of their diet as similar to before as possible.
At the end of the study, the researchers noted improvements among the participants in several cardiovascular disease risk factors, including reduced low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. During the plant-based stage, the participants also consumed less saturated fat and more fiber than they did during the meat stage, although their sodium intake remained similar throughout the study.
Con: Plant-based meats may be higher in sodium
A 2019 study nutritionally profiled plant-based products and compared them with their meat counterparts. The study took place in Australia and sampled plant-based products from supermarkets, including 50 burgers, 10 mince products, 29 sausages, 24 chicken products, nine seafood items, and 15 other meat substitutes.
Only 4% of the plant-based meats were lower in sodium than their meat equivalents. The mean sodium content in the plant-based products was mostly less than 500 milligrams per 100 grams (mg/100 g). However, this varied widely, and some products contained up to 1,200 mg/100 g, or 3 grams (g), of salt.
The researchers also noted that the sodium content varied depending on the product type. The sodium content in plant-based mince was about six times that of its meat-based equivalent. However, sausages containing meat had 66% more sodium than the plant-based sausages.
Calories and fat
The following table shows the ranges of fat and calories per 100 g in a few types of meat and plant-based products:
|Meat product||Plant-based product|
A 2021 study evaluated the nutritional quality of 37 plant-based mince products available in the U.S. in 2019. The researchers wanted to determine whether plant-based mince can supply essential nutrients, such as protein, zinc, and vitamin B12, in levels comparable to beef.
The study had several limitations. Firstly, the researchers did not randomly select the products, which may not be representative of all leading brands and products. Secondly, they obtained the nutrition information from the product labels rather than through chemical analysis.
However, the following is a summary of specific nutrients and the percentage of the daily value (DV) that they supply:
|Nutrient||Plant-based mince — median % of DV|
The study concluded that plant-based mince products have nutritional strengths as well as some shortcomings. For example, most plant-based meat products contained less vitamin B12 than ground beef. However, some manufacturers add this to their products.
How to choose healthier plant-based meats
When shopping or eating out, people can choose healthier plant-based meats by looking at the ingredients or nutrition labels. Some things to look for include:
- a nutrient-dense ingredient list including whole foods, such as beans, legumes, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds
- saturated fat contributing less than 10% of the calories
- lower sodium, as government advice is to consume less than 2,300 mg per day
- added vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12 or vitamin D
- protein-rich ingredients that may help achieve recommended daily protein intakes, such as pea protein
What to avoid
Some characteristics of plant-based meats and products that a person might wish to avoid include:
- Artificial ingredients: Some people may wish to avoid long lists of artificial ingredients, fillers, or additives. However, there is no evidence to suggest that these additives are harmful.
- Added sugars: A person may wish to moderate their intake of ingredients ending in “ose”, such as fructose, maltose, glucose, even if they do not exclude them altogether.
- Higher calories: This may be especially true if a person wishes to lose weight.
Additionally, someone who has celiac disease or is intolerant to gluten should avoid plant-based meats containing seitan or vital wheat gluten.
Furthermore, people should be aware that if they eat buns, sauces, and condiments alongside plant-based meats, they will add calories, sugar, and fat to their daily intake.
What to look out for on food labels
The following tableTrusted Source shows potential ingredients in plant-based meats that contribute to key nutrients:
|Protein||soy protein, pea protein, soybeans, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, mycoprotein, almonds|
|Fat or saturated fat||vegetable oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, sunflower seeds, rice bran oil, coconut oil, flaxseed, cocoa butter, peanuts|
|Carbohydrate or sugars||potatoes, tapioca, rice flour, sweet potato, corn starch, potato starch, sugar, fructose, apple, tomato paste, wheat flour|
|Dietary fiber||brown rice, lentils, black beans, wheat fiber, chickpeas, quinoa, red lentil, locust bean gum, buckwheat, adzuki bean, split peas, green peas, whole pear millet, soy fiber, bamboo, methylcellulose, mushrooms, mung beans, carrot, pumpkin|
Plant-based meats may be a sustainable ecological solution and serve as tasty alternatives for those avoiding meat for ethical or health reasons. They can provide essential nutrients and fiber and may be lower in saturated fats than meat.
However, they may contain lower levels of some nutrients, such as protein, vitamin B12, or zinc, than a regular meat product. It is important to note that people eating a plant-based diet can get adequate nutrients by including a variety of whole foods and supplementing vitamin B12.
People who wish to try plant-based meats should look at the ingredients list to help them choose nutrient-dense products. They may also want to avoid or limit accompaniments that will add excess sugar, fat, or salt.