Meatless Meat: How Healthy Are Plant-based Meat Alternatives?

Plant-based diets have grown in popularity over recent years as rising awareness of the associated health benefits, climate change, environmental pollution, and ethical concerns have driven consumers to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets. Although it is difficult to measure the exact number of vegetarians or vegans in the United States, current estimates suggest that between 2% and 6% of Americans identify themselves as vegetarians, and about 1% of those consider themselves vegan. Responding to high demand and providing consumers with appealing product options, plant-based food companies are creating a variety of meatless foods.

While plant-based meat alternatives are not a new concept, the market has witnessed an influx of a novel product – meatless burgers designed to taste like traditional beef burgers. Spearheading the meatless meat movement, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have experienced instantaneous success, with sales of Beyond Meat increasing five-fold since 2016 and the latest round of funding valuing Impossible Foods at $2 billion. This positive attention is due in part to the environmental benefits and assumed positive health impact of eating a plant-based diet, however, the nutritional content of these products has been largely overlooked. Are meatless burgers as healthy as they have been positioned to be or are they just less harmful than their animal-based counterparts?

Good Sources of Protein, Vitamins, and Minerals

Created without GMOs, both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats products have a high protein content, which competes with beef and poultry proteins gram for gram. Per 4 ounce serving, each meatless burger delivers between 19-20 grams of protein; Impossible Burger protein is derived from soy and potato, while Beyond Burger meat protein comes from peas, rice, and mung beans.

The Impossible Burger also adds vitamins and minerals similar to those found in animal proteins, such as iron, vitamin B12, zinc, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, and folate, making it a good source of nutrients for vegetarians who are at risk of vitamin deficiencies. Alongside these fortified micronutrients, the burger is also a good source of calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. Similarly, the Beyond Burger provides an excellent source of iron – 25% of the daily recommended amount in one serving – although it does not fortify their products with many additional vitamins and minerals.

High Saturated Fat and Sodium Content  

Perhaps the most significant issue with meatless burgers is their high saturated fat content, comparable to that of traditional animal-based products. While 4 ounces of 85% lean ground beef contains 17 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 80 mg of sodium, and 240 calories, their meatless alternatives contain either equal or greater amounts of these macronutrients. Sodium content is particularly high, with both meatless burgers containing between 370 and 390 mg of sodium, which could be a concern for individuals on salt-restricted diets. Not only are high-sodium diets rich in saturated fats associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death, but they also play a role in the obesity epidemic.

The nutritional breakdown of meatless burgers and animal-based burgers implicates that while the plant-derived alternatives may be good sources of nutrients, nutritionally they are in actuality not much different from a traditional beef burger. Moreover, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products are significantly higher in sodium content, making them a potentially harmful dietary addition for individuals attempting to reduce  their salt intake.

If health benefits are the driving concern of people searching for meat alternatives, vegetable and legume-based burgers may be the most efficacious at lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health conditions. While the popularity of these new meatless meat products speaks to an increasing demand for higher quality, better tasting plant-based alternatives, the products available today may not be as healthy as they have been marketed to be.