Are Plant Based Meat Alternatives Healthy?

by Brooklin White MS Candidate, Dietetic InternNutrition

Plant based meat alternatives have some role in improving human and planetary health, but there is no evidence to suggest that they can substitute for healthy diets focused on minimally processed plant foods” (1)

- Frank Hu, MD, MPH, PhD, Dept. of Nutrition, Harvard Chan School

Plant based meats have become popular in recent years due to an increased interest in farm to table restaurants, farmers markets, and the impact plant-based diets have on our health and longevity. The science behind plant-based diets supporting health and cognition over meat-based diets, especially red meat, has only strengthened over the years (2)(3). There is currently no evidence that suggests that the addition of red meat to your diet will produce health benefits - even the most recent publication in the Annals of Internal Medicine in support of red meat was falsified (4). The truth is that humans are omnivores and can make muscle out of either meat or plants as all of the essential amino acids needed for human survival can be found in both. While we know plants are in fact healthier to consume than beef, are these plant-based meat alternatives really a “healthier” and more “sustainable” option than beef meat?

When it comes to sustainability, the answer is absolutely yes. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s land is used to raise livestock. This leads to chronic deforestation, increased water utilization, and significant greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change (5). Reducing beef consumption with plant-based alternatives has the potential to dramatically slow global warming and improve health outcomes (4)(6)(7). Although beneficial for the environment, plant-based meat alternatives are still considered a processed food as they undergo various processing phases and are consequently not a recommended food source to eat on a daily basis. The key ingredient of Impossible Meats, for instance, is soybean leghemoglobin, which is a byproduct of genetically engineered yeast. Soybean leghemoglobin is functionally identical to myoglobin which is found in animals and gives meat its bloody texture and meaty flavors and aromas. Since soybean leghemoglobin is found in the roots of soy and is difficult to extract, Impossible Foods engineered a specific yeast to make it for them (8). Impossible Foods studied the effects of excessive amounts of this yeast produced soy leghemoglobin in rats and found no evidence of any deleterious effects in health, growth, well-being, inflammation, injury or other abnormalities (9). Additional research by non-Impossible Foods employees is warranted, however. Beyond Meat on the other hand, is a predominantly pea-based plant meat alternative that does not include GMOs but has a higher amount of processed oils. Although there are various plant-based meat alternatives out on the market, we’ve broken down the two most common below:

Impossible Meat:

What it is: Impossible meat is made from a blend of soy and potato protein with sunflower oil, coconut oil, yeast extract, GMO based heme (heme is a tiny molecule found in nearly all plants and animals that has been found to create a desirable flavor— it has been a part of the daily diet of humans since the beginning of humanity), methylcellulose (culinary binder found in ice cream, sauces and jams) and food starch (another additive found in foods such as canned soup). More details can be found here.

Pros:

    • Reduction of red meat in the diet is linked to significant health benefits
    • Environmentally sustainable: far less water and land used and fewer greenhouse emissions produced in the production of Impossible Meats vs beef meat.
    • Easy, plant-based alternative to beef and can be found in grocery stores
    • Can be a beneficial way to transition from a heavy meat eating diet to a more plant focused diet
    • The Impossible Foods company is extremely transparent about their ingredients, food processing, scientific testing for food safety and the benefits Impossible Meat has on the health of individuals and the environment.

Cons:

    • Highly processed
    • Higher in sodium that beef burgers
    • Contains GMO Soybean leghemoglobin
    • Stripped of key vitamins, phytonutrients and minerals due to excessive processing
    • Not nearly as healthy as eating homemade veggie burgers that usually contain whole plant products

Beyond Meat:

What it is: Beyond meat is made from pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein and additional additives and preservatives. The full list of ingredients can be found here.

Pros:

    • Reduction of red meat in diet is linked to significant health benefits
    • Environmentally sustainable: far less water and land used and fewer greenhouse emissions produced in the production of Beyond Meats vs beef meat.
    • Free of animal hormones, antibiotics and contaminants
    • No GMOs
    • No soy or gluten
    • Kosher
    • Easy, plant-based alternative to beef and can be found in grocery stores
    • Can be a beneficial way to transition from a heavy meat eating diet to a more plant focused diet
    • Beyond Meat is transparent about their food ingredients and mission regarding sustainability and health.

Cons:

    • Highly processed
    • Higher in sodium than beef burgers
    • High in refined oils such as canola and coconut (refined simply means, stripped of nutrients)
    • Stripped of key vitamins, phytonutrients and minerals due to excessive processing
    • Not nearly as healthy as eating homemade veggie burgers that usually contain whole plant products

Should you eat plant based meat alternatives?

When thinking about healthy options, it’s always important to consider what you are comparing your options to. If you are out in the wilderness and starving, eating meat is obviously much better than dying of starvation. However, if you are seeking the healthier option between a beef cheeseburger and an Impossible Burger, the Impossible Burger would win out. If you were comparing an Impossible Burger to a homemade veggie burger however, the homemade burger will always take the lead. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to eat plant based, and when you can, eat as close to the source as possible. Although these plant-based meat alternatives are in fact, plant-based, they do include fillers and preservatives to ensure they last until they reach the consumer. Opting for whole plant ingredients such as beans, mushrooms, pecans, chickpeas etc. not only maximizes the nutrient value you are getting, but also ensures you are setting your body and mind up for success. As Lew Hollander, the 90-year-old Iron Man triathlete once said, “Never eat anything [you] can’t identify”.

Like any processed food, eating a plant-based meat product occasionally will not cause lasting damage to your body. In fact, recent research of these plant based meat products show that despite their relatively high levels of saturated fat and sodium, they do not increase the cardiovascular disease biomarker trimethylamine N oxide (TMAO). Even in diets heavy in consumption of these plant based meat products, TMAO and other biomarkers including LDL cholesterol do not increase, compared with diets heavy in actual meat products which show these heart disease biomarkers do increase (10). This is promising for those wishing to include plant based meat products in their diet. This data suggests that these products may be safe even when consumed up to two servings per day. If we couple this data with our knowledge of the best diet for healthspan and longevity, which includes strictly whole, plant foods, we can deduce that consumption of these products in moderation, especially while reducing your consumption of animal meat, is likely healthy. At the Amos Institute, we prefer the Beyond Meat products, as they were the products studied in the research that shows no adverse impact to TMAO and other biomarkers, and we recommend consuming them only on occasion, as your reduce animal meat consumption.


References

  1. Hu, F. B., Otis, B. O., & McCarthy, G. (2019). Can Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Be Part of a Healthy and Sustainable Diet?JAMA,322(16), 1547–1548.https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.13187
  2. Medawar, E., Huhn, S., Villringer, A., & Veronica Witte, A. (2019). The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: A systematic review.Translational Psychiatry,9.https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0552-0
  3. Willcox, D. C., Willcox, B. J., Todoriki, H., & Suzuki, M. (2009). The Okinawan diet: Health implications of a low-calorie, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich dietary pattern low in glycemic load.Journal of the American College of Nutrition,28 Suppl, 500S-516S.https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2009.10718117
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, January 21).What’s the beef with red meat?Harvard Health.https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/whats-the-beef-with-red-meat
  5. World Resources Institute. (2018, May 31).Animal-based foods are more resource-intensive than plant-based foods.https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/animal-based-foods-are-more-resource-intensive-plant-based-foods
  6. World Resource Institute. (2020).World resources report: Creating a sustainable food future. World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future | WRI.https://research.wri.org/wrr-food
  7. Goldstein, B., Moses, R., Sammons, N., & Birkved, M. (2017). Potential to curb the environmental burdens of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute.PLOS ONE,12(12), e0189029.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0189029
  8. Impossible Foods. (2020).The Impossible™ burger: Made from plants.https://impossiblefoods.com/burger/
  9. Jin, Y., He, X., Andoh‐Kumi, K., Fraser, R. Z., Lu, M., & Goodman, R. E. (2018). Evaluating Potential Risks of Food Allergy and Toxicity of Soy Leghemoglobin Expressed in Pichia pastoris.Molecular Nutrition & Food Research,62(1).https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.201700297
  10. Armitage, H. (2020). Plant-based meat lowers some cardiovascular risk factors compared with red meat, study finds, Stanford Medicine. Retrieved from:https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/08/plant-based-meat-versus-animal-meat.html