Greater numbers of people are choosing plant-based meat substitutes for various reasons, including perceived health benefits.
While leaner cuts of beef can still have a place in a heart-healthy meal plan, consumers may be more willing to overeat plant-based meat substitutes, but their high sodium and saturated fat content may pose health risks.
As an alternative to over-processed vegan foods, clinicians may advise patients to consider leaner cuts of meat and incorporate wholesome vegetarian superfoods, such as nuts, greens, and vegetables, into their diets.
“Eat less red meat” is a recommendation commonly made by healthcare professionals. As a result, several meat alternatives have emerged and are experiencing a rapid rise in popularity, such as the plant-based Impossible Burger.
But are these highly processed foods actually healthier than meat?
Here’s a breakdown on the Impossible Burger, and meat alternatives in general, to help physicians and their patients decide.
The rise of plant-based meat alternatives
Patients adopt a vegetarian diet for various reasons, including concerns about the treatment of animals, environmental issues, and health. While ample evidence supports the health benefits of plant-based eating, the jury is still out on whether highly processed meat substitutes contribute to these positive effects.
Whatever their benefits, there was a 27% increase in the sale of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives in the US from 2019 to 2020, according to research published by Nutrients. But despite their popularity, it’s crucial to take a deeper look at the details before assuming these products are nutritionally superior to their animal-based counterparts.
How does the Impossible Burger compare?
The Impossible Burger is a highly publicized plant-based patty made from soy that entered the market in 2016. Unlike many mushroom or bean burgers, it’s formulated with an uncanny resemblance to the look, taste, and smell of real beef. The team of food scientists at Impossible Foods even went so far as to produce heme, which recreates the flavor of meat, from genetically engineered yeast.
Impossible Burgers are sold frozen in grocery stores and featured in restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory and Burger King.
The Impossible Burger was designed for meat lovers and production is reportedly less environmentally taxing than raising cattle.
Based on a 100-gram comparison, the Impossible Burger has more favorable stats for protein (17.2 g compared with beef’s 16.8 g), fiber (4.4 g to beef’s 0 g), and iron (3.7 mg to beef’s 2 mg) than traditional beef. It’s also lower in calories with fewer grams of total fat (11.5 g vs beef’s 19.9 g) and saturated fat (5.3 g vs beef’s 7.3 g), despite using coconut oil as a main ingredient.
However, the Impossible Burger has almost five times the sodium content as a beef patty (327 mg vs beef’s 66 mg). Pair an Impossible Burger with a bun and condiments, and consumers will be on the fast track to a high-sodium meal.Related: Using precision cardiovascular medicine to prevent the development of heart diseases
Looking beyond the nutrition label
Patients may be quick to assume that plant-based meat substitutes are healthy and can be consumed in excess. But that’s not the case for those trying to limit sodium or saturated fat.
It’s essential for patients to be educated on the pros and cons of meat substitutes and appropriate portion sizes to guard against the unwarranted “health halo” these products often receive.
Also, despite the comparable or superior levels of micronutrients like iron listed for many meat substitutes, the availability of these nutrients isn’t guaranteed.
Further research published in Nutrients showed that the phytate content of plant-based products may significantly reduce the bioavailability of iron and zinc despite food fortification. One exception appears to be tempeh, which enables greater iron accessibility due to the fermentation process.
For those cutting out red meat for heart health, the best message might be, “not so fast.”
Lean meats and seafood offer nutritional benefits that aren’t always found in meat substitutes.
Furthermore, despite a longstanding bias towards white meat, studies such as research published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show no major advantage of poultry over beef as long as the fat content is low.
Instead, clinicians may advise patients to switch to leaner cuts of meat and incorporate wholesome vegetarian superfoods (like walnuts, leafy greens, and cruciferous veggies) over processed vegan products.
What this means for you
Patients should be educated on the benefits of plant-based eating but cautioned about processed food products marketed as healthier alternatives. Since the nutrients in meat substitutes can be harder to absorb, these products are not always healthier than lean meat and seafood. The high sodium and saturated fat content of manufactured plant-based foods may also pose a health risk to vulnerable populations.