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Plant-based Meat Products - What are They? What is the Benefit? Do They Taste Good?

You may have seen some plant-based meat products as you have gone through the aisles of your grocery store and wondered what they were all about and if they tasted good. Plant-based meat is not a new concept, however many food companies have started to branch more into plant-based products. Rather than market these products to a specific niche of people, companies are instead advertising to everyone (meat-lovers, vegetarians, and vegans alike). Two companies that have taken on this task are Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat's Beyond Burger. By showcasing these plant-based products as a sustainable food choice, this furthers the companies' reach attracting consumers looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Furthermore, by promoting their products as nutritious alternatives to animal protein, casting meat in a negative light, this opens up a whole new outlook on what plant-based products could entail. 

But the question remains - What are these plant-based products composed of? Are there really any benefits to consuming more plant-based foods? Are these products even tasty? It turns out the answer may depend on whether your priorities lie, whether that's with your personal health, the health of the planet, or dietary preferences. 

The good news: Plant-based burgers are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Current plant-based burgers have been created to compete with beef and poultry items in terms of protein content. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have comparable amounts, the former deriving protein mainly from soy and pea proteins.

In addition, these meatless burger products add several important vitamins and minerals that are commonly found in animal proteins, such as vitamin B12 and zinc, in amounts equal to (and in some cases, greater than) both red meat and poultry. For this reason, these plant-based burger options may be beneficial for vegetarians and vegans alike, as they can obtain these vitamins where their diet would typically lack. For example, vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient found primarily in animal sources, therefore making it hard for strict vegetarians and vegans to get  their recommended daily intakes. Furthermore, compounds such as phytic acid found in plants  bind to minerals such as zinc, increasing their requirements by approximately 50% and may necessitate an increased consumption of iron as well. For those who eat at least some animal protein, the vitamin and mineral fortification is less of a selling point.

It is important to note that this does not mean that a plant-focused diet is lacking in nutrients, in fact there are plenty of plant proteins that contain several vital vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that meat does not. For example, beans are an excellent source of both zinc and iron, as well as a great protein option. Therefore, black bean burgers make for an acceptable choice as a nutrient-dense burger “replacement” option. 

The bad news: Meatless burgers can be heavily processed and high in saturated fat.

However, the same can not be said regarding the previously mentioned beef substitute burgers. Unlike black bean burgers, these burgers have been created to mimic what many people love about a classic burger, the red juicy center and savory taste. Food scientists have successfully replicated the taste of a hamburger with meatless burgers, however in the process they also replicated a high amount of saturated fat to match. Research has shown that diets high in saturated fat are associated with increased rates of heart disease and metabolic disease states.  For this reason, those who are health-conscious may not want to replace their burger for one of these meatless products, as there is really no advantage in making the switch in this regard. Another reason to reconsider buying the meatless burger is they contain high amounts of sodium, which can be particularly troublesome for someone on a salt-restricted diet or concerned about their heart-health. 

Another branded meatless option often involves legumes as the main source of protein, however  the health benefits of this plant protein is outweighed by high levels of processing in the making of these burger products. For example, moderate amounts of whole soy foods, like edamame (soybeans), have been associated with reducing cancer risk due to its protective plant-compounds known as isoflavones (subgroup of flavonoids). Unfortunately, in the case of the Impossible Burger, these nutrient-dense compounds are stripped from the product providing less than 8% of the isoflavones found in roughly 1 serving of whole soy foods, such as ¼ of a block of tofu or 1 cup of soymilk.

Poultry-based burger alternatives, such as turkey burgers, also do not contain significant amounts of protective plant compounds. However, on a positive note, they do contain far less saturated fat than the traditional hamburger. 

Overall, if a lower risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease is your ultimate goal, aim for the kind of veggie burgers that showcase their beans, grains, and seeds front and center (rather than brands such as Impossible burger or Beyond Meat). Rather than purchasing the highly processed, high in saturated fat meatless burger option, choose a legume-based variety filled with seeds and whole grains, like brown rice and quinoa instead. All in all, eating a well-rounded, balanced diet full of color and variety is far better than any processed product out on shelves today. 

Erika Richter, MS, Dietetic Intern


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