Just look at grocery store shelves, and you’ll see an abundance of plant-based meat alternatives. As more people cut back on animal products, companies are offering a greater variety of plant-based foods that mimic the taste of meat.
The population of non-meat eaters is growing, with 63% of respondents in a recent U.S. consumer survey reporting eating more plant-based foods. Specifically for plant-based meat alternatives, the market research firm SPINS reported that dollar sales for plant-based meats grew 45% from 2019 to 2020.
People are turning to vegetarian options for many reasons, including environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Plant-based foods generally have a lower impact on the environment, while providing fiber and other nutrients that may help prevent some chronic disease.
Research has shown that greater intake of red and processed meat raises the risk of heart disease. One study of 20,000 individuals published in the journal European Society of Cardiology showed that people who ate more read meat had smaller heart ventricles, poorer heart function, and stiffer arteries.
On the other hand, research has linked plant-based diets with less cardiovascular risk.
“Everyone should follow a plant-based diet to decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and diversify the bacteria in your gut microbiome,” says Kirsten Straughan, RD, director of the nutrition science program at the College of Applied Health Sciences at University of Illinois Chicago.
If you’re looking to increase plant-based meat alternatives in your diet, know what to look for because not all are created equal.
Plant-based meat and nutrition
You know what you’re getting with whole plant foods — such as an apple or a stalk of broccoli — but how healthy are plant-based meat alternatives?
The magic of food technology has transformed plant proteins from soybeans, peas, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and fungus or ‘mycoprotein’ into a bevy of plant-based meat alternatives from veggie burgers, sausages, and hot dogs to faux chicken nuggets and fish sticks.
And just as animal meats differ nutritionally, not all plant-based meat alternatives are the same.
Recent research in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics compared the nutritional quality of ground-beef-alternative products sold by major brands in the U.S. and ground beef from animal meat.
The plant-based ground beef alternatives tended to be lower in saturated fat than ground beef, although levels varied. A few products in the study had as much saturated fat as ground beef.
The plant-based alternatives contained a moderate amount of fiber, which is underconsumed in the U.S. The results also indicated that the plant-based alternatives were a good source of iron, manganese, copper, folate, and niacin. However, they contained less of some vital nutrients — protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 — than ground beef.
Sodium levels were also higher in plant-based alternatives than animal meat, but salt is typically added to season ground beef during cooking.
Just because products are plant-based doesn’t mean you can assume you’re getting all the nutrients you need. Consider how these options fit into your broader diet.
“It’s the total diet that counts,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, professor of nutritional sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, who spoke about plant-based meats and cardiovascular risk reduction at the recent Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo.
“If you are going to follow a plant-based diet, make sure you are doing it the right way because if you do it the wrong way, you are not doing yourself any good at all,” she says.
The food we eat, whether from plants or animals, needs to be nutritionally adequate and meet current dietary recommendations. “Our goal should be achieving an optimal diet quality regardless of whether the diet includes animal protein or not,” Kris-Etherton says.
“Lean beef can provide a lot of nutrients that are either under-consumed or hard to get,” she says. Lean beef offers protein, easily absorbed iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, as well as creatine for muscle growth and maintenance, the antioxidants taurine and glutathione, and conjugated linoleic acid, an important fatty acid.
“Lean beef can be included in a healthy dietary pattern that meets all current dietary recommendations for health promotion and disease prevention,” she says.
If you are replacing animal meat in your diet, make sure you’re getting a nutritious substitute, Straughan says. “It’s important to read labels,” she says. “Even within brands, look at individual products, watch for saturated fat from coconut oil, and look for fiber in the product.”
The bottom line is that eating less red and processed meat — and fewer animal products in general — may be good for your health, but it’s important to understand whether plant-based meat alternatives hit the nutrition mark for you.