Plant-based meat alternatives have soared in popularity lately, but they’re actually nothing new.
Tofu has been used as a meat substitute across Asia for centuries, and once upon a time even the Kellogg’s company dipped their toe in the “meatless meat” market with their peanut-based meat alternative, Nuttose.
Things are a little different now, though.
Plant-based meat alternatives are no longer viewed as a convenient protein source when meat is scarce—they’re intended to completely replace animal products in your diet.
That’s because many people believe swapping out animal meat for so-called vegan meat is better for animal welfare and the environment and may stave off a battery of chronic diseases, too.
Is this true?
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about plant-based meat substitutes, including answers to questions like . . .
- What is plant-based meat?
- Are plant-based meat alternatives healthy?
- What are the best plant-based meat substitutes you can buy?
- And more!
Table of Contents
Plant-based meat alternatives—also known as vegan meats, meat substitutes, meat alternatives, or “meatless meats”—are man-made foods designed to mimic the taste, smell, texture, and nutritional value of meat, without containing any animal products.
In recent years, plant-based meat alternatives have become increasingly more popular (the plant-based meat substitute market is predicted to be worth more than $30 billion by 2026). This is mainly because they’re (allegedly) a healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more ethical alternative to animal-based products.
While ingredients vary among meat substitutes, most contain . . .
- Plant proteins, like soy, pea, potato, rice, wheat, and mycoprotein
- Fats, like canola, coconut, soybean, and sunflower oil
- Other novel ingredients, such as soy leghemoglobin, red-colored vegetable extracts, and flavoring agents
Manufacturers also regularly add vitamins and minerals to their products to better match the nutritional profile of plant-based meat substitutes to real meat.
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By far, one of the main selling points of plant-based meat alternatives is the idea that they’re healthier than real meat.
Let’s take a look at how vegan meat and animal meat match up nutritionally, according to science.
The majority of plant-based meat products contain concentrated or isolated forms of plant proteins such as soy, pea, or rice.
However, a number of studies show that the purified proteins found in plant-based meat alternatives aren’t as effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis as animal proteins, most likely because of their lower amino acid content.
And while some people will argue that you can blend plant protein sources to improve their anabolic properties, research shows they still won’t hold a candle to real meat in this regard.
For instance, in one recent study published in the journal Nutrients, participants who consumed a complementary blend of plant proteins had 30-to-40% lower levels of amino acids in their blood than participants who consumed the same amount of amino acids from whey protein.
No matter how you slice it (har har), plant proteins just aren’t as high-quality as animal products on a per gram basis. This isn’t to say that you can’t build muscle while following a vegan or vegetarian diet—you can—but it requires precise management of your amino acid intake.
(And if you’d like specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to build muscle, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
When you remove animal products from your diet it can be difficult to get adequate amounts of numerous vitamins and minerals, including . . .
You can—at least to some degree—mitigate the health issues of vitamin deficiencies by using dietary supplements. However, research shows that relying too heavily on supplementation isn’t as effective as getting vitamins and minerals from whole foods, and that you’ll likely miss out on some health benefits if you rely too much on supplements to meet your nutritional needs.
Manufacturers use a range of colorings, flavour enhancers, binding agents, and processing techniques during the production of vegan meat to make it look, smell, taste, and feel as similar to animal meat as possible.
Many people fear that this means there’ll be an abundance of chemicals in plant-based meat alternatives that could be detrimental to their health.
In reality, this isn’t a major cause for concern.
While research into the colorings, flavor enhancers, and binding agents used in the production of plant-based meat alternatives is still in its infancy, most studies suggest the techniques and ingredients used are safe.
Plant-based meat alternatives tend to contain far more salt than animal meat (up to 609 milligrams of salt per 100 grams in some plant-based burger patties), which is definitely something you should be aware of if you regularly eat one or two portions per day.
Many people claim plant-based meat alternatives are a healthy substitute for animal meat because . . .
- Regularly eating red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
- Replacing animal sources of protein with plant-based alternatives may protect you against such diseases.
The problem with these claims is they’re mostly based on the results of observational studies, which are helpful for identifying trends in large populations of people, but only ever show correlation, not causation.
That is, they show that people who eat red and processed meat are more likely to suffer from health issues such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer, but they can’t prove that the people suffer these problems because they eat red and processed meat.
For instance, many health-conscious people have internalized the idea that meat is “bad” for you, and thus reduce their intake. And because these folks care about their health, they exercise regularly, stay relatively lean, get plenty of sleep, don’t smoke, and engage in a variety of other behaviors that are keeping them in fine fettle that have nothing to do with avoiding meat.
All things considered, a varied diet that . . .
- Includes a mixture of minimally processed foods such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy
- Limits processed food such as sausages and deli meats, soft drinks, candy, desserts, fast foods, frozen dinners, and breakfast cereals
. . . is probably better at preventing disease than any diet that restricts entire food groups completely.
It’s difficult to tell that the Beyond Meat Burger is plant-based which, of course, is why this company has become the grand poobah of the meat-substitute market.
As well as being marbled with coconut oil and cocoa butter that sizzles when you cook it, it contains beet juice and apple extract that imitate the seared color and bloodiness of real meat incredibly well.
The Beyond Burger is made with pea, rice, and mung bean protein, contains 20 grams of protein per patty, and contains all nine essential amino acids.
One downside of the Beyond Burger is that it’s pretty high in fat—a 113-gram patty contains 14 grams of fat, whereas a 95%-lean beef burger contains about half that much.
El Burrito Soyrizo is a soy-based sausage that mimics the robust flavor of Mexican chorizo. As you cook it, it breaks down into crispy little chunks that work well as part of all the Mexican classics, such as burritos, tacos, and enchiladas.
The only thing you have to pay attention to with the El Burrito Soyrizo is salt content: one 2-inch serving contains 410 milligrams of sodium, and a full-length sausage has over a gram.
Billed as the “Tesla of chicken,” NUGGS are a plant-based alternative to chicken nuggets made from pea protein, corn starch, pea starch, and corn flour. Five pieces contain just 180 calories and 22 grams of protein, making them nutritionally superior to most animal-based nuggets on the market (which, to be fair, isn’t saying much).
Tofurky Italian Sausages are sausages made from tofu and flavoured with sundried tomato and basil.
Because they also contain vital wheat gluten—a high-protein gluten that’s used to make seitan—each link contains 30 grams of protein, only 8 grams of carbohydrates, and 15 grams of fat, making them a slightly more macro-friendly alternative to pork or beef sausages (though admittedly, not by much).
Good Catch Fish-Free Plant-Based Tuna mimics the taste and texture of real tuna by blending pea protein, soy protein, chickpea flour, lentil protein, faba protein, and navy bean flour. What’s more, it contains 350 milligrams of DHA from algal oil—a plant-based source of omega-3s.
The only thing that differs greatly from the real thing is Good Catch Fish-Free Plant-Based Tuna contains 450 milligrams of sodium per serving—something to keep an eye on if you’re near your salt allowance for the day.
Yes, but you’ll have to pay even more attention to your protein intake.
The best way to get around this is to eat even more protein than you ordinarily would, and to seek out sources of plant-protein that are particularly high in leucine, such as pea, soy, and most kinds of beans.
If you want to learn more about the best sources of vegan protein, check out this article:
(And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to build muscle, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.)
Possibly, but this is still a matter of debate.
For instance, studies suggest that meeting nutrient targets with plant foods probably has a lower carbon footprint than meeting these targets with animal foods.
However, they don’t consider the reduced bioaccessibility and bioavailability of plant foods for these nutrients.
In other words, these studies don’t take into account the fact you need to eat considerably more plant foods than animal foods to meet your protein, iron, zinc, retinol, and amino acid requirements.
When you consider the extra land you’d have to use for farming to be able to supply enough plant food to meet people’s nutrient requirements, research shows the environmental footprint of animal foods is more or less the same as plant foods.
What’s more, research showing that meat alternatives have a lower environmental impact when compared to grain-fed cows doesn’t take into account the systems that can be put in place to mitigate the environmental impact of farming that do a lot to redress the balance.
For example . . .
- Research shows where lands are allowed to properly recover after a grazing period, the amount of carbon in the soil more than offsets the ruminants’ greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in a net negative carbon footprint.
- If livestock are allowed to spend their lives grooming and fertilizing vegetation and soil, they may help to mitigate any deleterious environmental effects (or at least not exacerbate them further).
- Well-managed grasslands, like those that house livestock, may be more reliable “carbon sinks” than forests.
The truth is, when good farming practices are upheld, farming livestock isn’t as detrimental to the environment as many caterwauling activists would have you believe.
In fact, if the same energy went into reforming farming practices that goes into trying to “cancel” animal farming, the environment would likely be a lot better off.
Maybe, but I doubt it.
Aside from the fact that meat alternatives don’t provide adequate amounts of several vitamins and minerals to sustain good health, research shows that many people simply don’t want to eat “meatless meat.”
The reason for this is obvious—aside from providing many important nutrients, most people think meat tastes really good, which is why companies have spent millions of dollars trying to mimic its taste, texture, and smell with plant-based ingredients.
This is true even when they understand the environmental, health, and ethical implications of consuming animal products.
What’s more, eating meat is so entrenched in many people’s diet and culture, trying to remove it completely would be a tall order: it’s unlikely the Maasai tribes of Kenya and Tanzania will ever replace raw meat and animal blood with an Impossible Burger, that the Inuit in Greenland will swap whale skin for Soyrizo, or that a barbecue joint in Texas will start serving peanut patties instead of brisket.
For now the plant-based meat alternative trend is going strong, but in the same way that previous dietary dogmas have come and gone (see: the Atkins diet, Fletcherism, the cabbage soup diet, ear stapling, and the like) there’s a good chance most people will finally see plant-based meat alternatives for what they are: useful additions to a varied and nutritious diet and toothsome indulgences for vegans and vegetarians, but not a replacement for animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.
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