If you weren’t living a plant-based lifestyle before — and are now considering switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet — you certainly aren't alone. In the wake of the coronavirus global health crisis, more and more people are jumping on the plant-based diet train for the sake of the environment, as well as their own personal health.
But what about plant-based meat? Is that truly a healthier alternative to the real stuff? With plant-based meats becoming increasingly popular in recent years – with even fast-casual establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts, White Castle, Little Caesars Pizza, and Burger King offering the Impossible or Beyond Burger – it begs the question of whether plant-based meat is actually healthy.
What are plant-based meats made of?
While plant-based meat is often heralded for tasting and looking like real meat, many are still unsure if it's actually healthy. After all, what is it made of? Old-school vegetarian and vegan burgers (and other meatless meat substitutes) used filler ingredients to kind of pad out the fake meat (after all, a vegetable-based patty needs something to bind it together!) Such fillers could include rice or even tofu.
But what made new-age burgers like the Beyond and the Impossible so unique was that they didn’t use such fillers. Instead, these plant-based meat companies introduced something totally new: heme. It’s the key ingredient that’s responsible for making meatless products taste so authentic – so much like the real thing.
Heme is an essential molecule containing iron that is found in the blood of humans and animals, but also in soybeans. It gives meat that metallic flavor, makes it pink, and makes your blood red, too.
Is plant-based meat healthy?
It’s a complicated question. While heme is thought of as a healthier “filler” than rice or tofu, it has its negatives, too. This “miracle” ingredient – also known as soy leghemoglobin – is a genetically modified organism (GMO) that's modified and created in a lab by manipulating the DNA of the soybean and adding yeast. But just because this meat alternative is a GMO doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for you — even despite being GMO, plant-based meat is generally thought to be healthier.
It’s a natural source of iron, with just one Impossible Burger providing 25 percent of the daily recommended value of iron. Comparatively, beef-based burgers can increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases, according to the American Dietetic Association.
Plant-based meat also doesn’t get many points when it comes to caloric content, either. In terms of calories, most plant-based meats fare about the same as beef-based burgers. In fact, they might even be higher in calories and equivalent, if not higher, in sodium. Both beef burgers and plant-based burgers generally contain the same levels of fat as well. So, when looking at the nutrition labels, plant-based meat may not seem much healthier than real meat.
However, it’s worth considering that despite high sodium contents and basically equivalent fat and caloric contents, plant-based meats are high sources of iron and of course, add more vegetables to your diet.
Is plant-based meat sustainable?
Undoubtedly. While plant-based meat is a genetically modified organism, it also has a lower environmental impact than beef. The impact of raising and slaughtering animals for meat releases billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Green Peace explains. This is a massive contributor to global warming.
Plant-based meat is not only sustainably sourced and made, it also deters people from eating more meat. Right? Eating plant-based meat in place of real meat results in a lesser impact. In addition to that, a growing demand for heme-based meat alternatives means a lower demand for beef, which could render the meat industry as less desired and therefore, less active.
Is a plant-based diet better for you?
One hundred percent. It’s better for the environment (after all, it has a lower carbon footprint!), better for the animals, and better for your health, too. But just because a plant-based diet is better for you does not mean that you can simply cut out meat and immediately be healthier. A healthy plant-based diet includes a balance of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. So, no, you shouldn’t only rely on pizza and Impossible burgers. Sorry – that’s just not how nutrition works.
A plant-based lifestyle should not solely rely on plant-based meat. That would be a diet extremely high in sodium and ultimately, not sustainable. Ultimately, research shows that plant-based diets can lower your body mass index, blood pressure, and even cholesterol levels.
Ultimately, a plant-based diet is the better option. As long as you are eating healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains daily in addition to implementing plant-based meats in your diet, a plant-based lifestyle is the healthier option.