Plant-based meat alternatives, or meat analogs, are not just for vegans and vegetarians anymore. As the interest in plant-based diets has grown in the last few years, so has the market for meat alternatives. Now you can even find a plant-based burger at your favorite fast food spots.
And it’s not just soy-based products or veggie burgers anymore. Innovation and technology have pushed meat alternative products into a new era. Even though we are seeing Impossible Meats and Beyond Burgers all over the grocery store and restaurants, there are still questions that remain about these products, including what they are really made of, how to choose, and how they might impact on our health. What we know for sure is that production of meat analogs takes a lesser toll on our planet than traditional methods of animal meat production. For this reason alone, they are worth exploring.
If you’ve been watching or listening to the news over the last few months, you probably already know that our country has been experiencing shortages in several grocery categories. One of particular interest is meat. Sparse meat departments have led consumers to look for alternatives. Interest and sales of plant-based meat alternatives was already on the rise before the COVID-19 crisis due to changes in consumer beliefs and attitudes. The shortage of animal proteins has only propelled this trend forward in just a few months. Food Navigator reported that sales growth of meat alternatives was up by 454% as of March 21st, compared to the same week in 2019. Sales of regular meat products had also risen due to consumer stockpiling, but the increase was nowhere near the rate of increase for meat alternatives.
What is plant meat?
Derived from plant sources, these “meats” are designed to resemble and taste like various animal meats. Some were developed in a lab and some were not, however, the name “laboratory-grown meat” actually refers to something different. This type of product uses stem cells from an animal to build new muscle tissues. Meat alternatives are not made from animal products at all and the ingredients will vary depending on the brand and product.
When it comes to choosing meat alternatives, I give the same advice as I do for any food product - pay attention to the ingredients. This is important to understanding the quality and potentially the health value of what you’re consuming. A long ingredient list is an indicator that a product is highly processed. Two things to consider:
- Opt for a shorter ingredient list when comparing products.
- Can you pronounce the ingredients listed? Do you recognize them?
Looking at the ingredient list for an Impossible Burger, you’ll find ingredients like methylcellulose, cultured dextrose, soy leghemoglobin, mixed tocopherols, and natural flavors. While all of these ingredients are safe to consume, I still had to look them up to know what they are. An Italian “Sausage” product from No Evil Foods contains ingredients like vital wheat gluten, organic red kidney beans, organic chickpea flour, and nutritional yeast. There’s a big difference in those ingredient lists!
Here are some of my favorite meat alternative brands:
Are plant meat alternatives better for you?
The answer is (drumroll).... Maybe! Companies have developed products to closely mimic the nutritional profile of animal meats with some exceptions. By design, plant meat generally contains less saturated fat, no cholesterol, equal or more sodium, equal or more vitamins and minerals, and in some cases, a little bit of fiber. It’s important to remember that the majority of these products are highly processed, which we would typically want to avoid in large quantities. Since they are fairly new to the market, we don’t have much scientific research at this point to give insight into the potential long-term health effects of consuming meat alternatives regularly. What we do know for certain is that a plant-based diet has a wealth of health benefits!
The key takeaway is that when moderation is practiced, there is room for all foods in a healthy eating pattern. I would recommend consuming plant-based meat alternatives in moderation (especially the ones with long ingredient lists) until we know more about the true effect on health.
Questions about how to cook with plant-based meat alternatives? Do you have a great recipe to share? Join The Chopping Block's private Facebook Group, and let’s chat!