By Mark Rummel
The three biggest words in the food world during 2019 have been “plant-based meats,” and they are guaranteed to be spoken — and eaten — more than ever throughout 2020 and beyond.
But, is plant-based meat good for you?
If the juicy burgers you grill for your family this summer are made of pea protein, you won’t be alone. Where imitation beef once looked (and tasted) like dry cardboard patties of veggie burgers, the growing election of meatless burgers today is constantly expanding to include wings, sausage and other juicy foods that look, cook and taste like the real thing.
These new meatless products don’t harm a single cow, chicken or pig — and almost no diners can tell the difference, compared with cuts of real beef, wings, turkey and pork. Plus, their impact on our planet is considered much better on the world’s climate, by not needing to raise livestock, according to a recent analysis in Prevention Magazine.
WHAT’S REALLY INSIDE?
Veggie burgers of the past were made of rice, whole peas, tofu and beans to imitate meat, author Marisa Cohen points out. But the new generation of plant-based meat wizards — the creators of leading brands the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger — started over.
Independently, they engineered the new substance to taste similar to animal flesh by modifying plant proteins for the proper chew, coconut oils to provide the sizzle and versions of a molecule called heme to provide the meaty flavor, the Prevention analysis notes. It looks, sizzles, bleeds and tastes like meat — but it isn’t.
“If you don’t eat animals for philosophical or moral reasons, yet you still miss the taste of a burger or chicken fingers, then these plant-based meats are a great choice,” says Flexitarian Diet author Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., “as long as you think of them as a ‘sometimes’ food.”
As the market for meat substitutes grows past the $150-million sales figure of 2018, there are several cautions, Blatner says. Not everyone sees overall benefits in these alternative products. For instance, they have more than a dozen ingredients to imitate beef and the other meats,including lab-created pea protein isolates and soy protein concentrates.
Real beef, chicken, turkey and pork have just one ingredient, of course. The CEO of Whole Foods Market — which first sold Beyond Meat’s products in 2013 and now carries its full line of burgers and sausages, plus other plant-based meats — recently said eating these products alone is not a healthy choice.
While calorie counts and saturated fat levels are very similar between plant based and meat-based products, sodium levels skyrocket in the processed products, up to five times the amount of real beef, the Prevention study explains.
In general, switching from a meat diet to a plant-based one can have positive effects on your health, as vegetarian and vegan diets can cut the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and other maladies. Simply switching from real animal foods to plant-based versions will only work when additional vegetables, fruits and whole grains are added to your diet, too, experts say.
EAT MORE WHOLE FOODS, TOO:
You should think about these highly processed plant-based meats as you think of beef, Blatner notes. It’s great as a treat once a week or so, perfect to toss on the grill, but not an everyday meal. She recommends adding bean based veggie burgers that include many whole food ingredients, such as black beans, carrots, broccoli, quinoa and corn. These have about half the calories of the newer meatless burgers, plus little or no saturated fat.
Surround your plant-based meat with plenty of healthy side dishes, Blatner advises. These should include crunchy vegetables, tomatoes and healthy salads. And sorry to tell you: eating a big serving of cheesy french fries won’t help you maintain and improve your health, no matter what type of meat you eat.
FUTURE OF PLANT-BASED MEATS:
Some experts compare the explosion of meatless meats to the history of milk consumption. But soy or almond milk and the other varieties gaining favor compared with cow’s milk have been available for decades, and have seen major sales growth just recently.
Meat suppliers are forecasting normal growth in demand in 2020, not reduction in supplies, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And since most plant based alternatives today are ground, imitating lower-priced varieties such as beef burgers, will consumers seek more expensive cuts of meat alternatives, even though prices will be higher? Steak-like versions are being created, but costs are excessive now, versus ground meat-like products. Or, will plant-based meats be considered a fad to be sampled, but not continued to be eaten regularly by consumers?
Whatever the outcome, these plant-based products will be appearing on more store shelves and restaurant menus — in many more varieties and cuts — as research and technology allows. Wholesale food experts believe market growth will continue strong in 2020, but wide-spread expansion will take several more years for consumers to become familiar with the new products.
But, no one is betting a burger dinner that real meat will disappear anytime soon. Plant-based meat products offer an interesting alternative today, as another way to consume foods that taste good and are better for diners and the environment.