Plant-based alternatives to meat have been gaining popularity, in part because many people are looking for health benefits from cutting out or reducing their red meat consumption to reduce their environmental impact.
So how do these products compare to meat in terms of health benefits? A new study from the University of Minnesota looked at the 37 most popular plant-based meat alternative brands to check on their nutritional quality. Overall, the findings were encouraging—it seems plant-based meat alternatives really can be healthier, protein-rich choices compared to red and processed meats. Here is the summary of the results of this new study, as well as some concerns it raised:
Do plant-based meats have as much nutritional value as red meat?
Plant-based meat is not quite as rich in certain vitamins and minerals as beef. Protein, zinc and vitamin B12 levels are all higher in beef, which means a diet with plant-based meat may benefit from being supplemented with other sources of these nutrients. Beans, chickpeas and nuts are good plant-based sources of zinc and protein. Vitamin B12 can be a little harder to get on a plant-based diet since it is mostly contained in beef, dairy, fish and eggs. Fortified cereals, nutritional yeast and tempeh are good vegetarian sources. Some brands of plant-based alternative meats—such as special formulations of the Beyond Burger—are fortified with vitamin B12.
Are plant-based meat alternatives actually healthier than red meat?
Plant-based meat alternatives stacked up great against red and processed meats. Many brands contained just as much protein but less saturated fat. It is also likely that meat alternatives don’t have the same cancer risks associated with processed and red meats because they don’t contain compounds such as nitrates and nitrites in packaging as well as some of the compounds released by cooking processed and red meat. These compounds have been shown to raise the risk of colon cancer—and are found in especially high levels in products like bacon, sausage and deli meats.
Sodium content of plant-based meat alternatives
One area researchers suggested the creators of plant-based meats could improve was with sodium content. The amount of salt and preservatives in packaged plant-based meat alternatives is comparable to that in processed red deli meats, which can raise concerns for some people. Anyone who is limiting salt intake because of high blood pressure should be cautious and check the nutrition label before incorporating these products into their diets.
Saturated fat content of plant-based meat alternatives
Some types of plant-based meat alternatives contain saturated fat content as high as the content of red meat. This is usually because of oil used in the product—such as coconut oil—that adds to the depth of flavor. However, for people who are switching to a plant-based diet to avoid high fat, this might not be ideal. For those who want a lower-fat option for plant-based meat alternatives, consider trying the more traditional “veggie burger” or “garden burger” replacements. These tend to be based in black beans or lentils, which are higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat.
Getting enough protein
One of the biggest concerns people have when considering switching to a plant-based diet is how to get enough protein. Plant-based meat alternatives based only in soy or brown rice don’t offer quite as much protein as real meat, but they are fairly close in comparison. For people who get most of their protein from plant-based meat alternatives, supplementing those meals with high-protein snacks and legumes such as nuts, peas, chickpeas, beans and lentils can get them to the same levels. Choosing formulations of these products that include those types of ingredients can add protein to the diet as well. Some plant-based burgers are made primarily with black beans or lentils, for example. Plant-based meat alternatives made out of seitan—a type of wheat gluten—are usually the highest in protein content.
Generally, plant-based meat alternatives seem to measure up fairly well against real meat as far as nutrition is concerned, but there is some room for improvement. For people who plan to eat plant-based meat alternatives as a regular part of their diet, choosing carefully when it comes to sodium and saturated fat content and making sure to get enough vitamin B12 can go a long way to ensuring good health.
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