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Let's Consider If Meat Free Food Is Actually Good For Us

Alternative meats have skyrocketed in popularity due to a rise in overall awareness about meat's impact on the environment and concern for our health, but should fake meat stay on the subs bench?

The plant-based industry has grown immensely over the past few years, making it readily available nationwide. Although It's not specifically a new concept, there are many new meat substitute brands popping up on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, making them a great option for meat-eaters, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans alike.

The reasons to eat more plant-based foods are compelling, whether you're concerned about your health, the environment, or animal welfare, plus that fact that it’s more convenient, however, many registered nutritionist worry that vegan “meats” are perceived as automatically being healthier. However it’s worth pointing out that many meat-free burgers for example contain on average even more salt than real meat burgers. Plus when switching to these products you also should consider what nutrients might then be missing from your diet, such as iron and B vitamins.

You can now buy plant-based cheeses that melt and bubble. You can sip on creamy coffees, down dollops of yogurt and dig into cartons of delicious ice cream that don't contain a drop of dairy. You can make a not-from-the-sea tuna sandwich and scramble up non-eggs. Not to mention plant-based burgers that sizzle and look just like the real thing, with boastful names like the Beyond, Impossible, and Awesome Burgers leading the “fake meat patty” market, but do they deserve the “health halo effect” they sometimes get?

The explosion of new plant-based meats has many asking if they are healthier. We're not talking black bean burgers or tofu—the meat alternatives that have been around for many decades. What you want to know is if those beef-looking crumbles, faux breakfast sausages, fake chicken strips, and burger substitutes that "bleed" when you cook them are actually a better nutritional choice.

The key thing is that any food that has been highly processed should be eaten mindfully – so not necessarily avoided completely, but not recommended weekly, due to the high salt content and most likely list of additives and preservatives used. A Harvard study from 2016 suggested that people who ate more plant protein and less animal protein had lower overall risk of death, but the plant protein in the study was mostly beans, pulses and nuts rather than Quorn “bacon” strips for example.

Defenders of meat will say – with good reason – that an unprocessed home-cooked grass-fed leg of lamb is a far more “natural” and nourishing thing than a Quorn burger. But the question is what to do if you lack the cash for grass-fed lamb. The bigger question is why we remain so hung up on this thing – “meat” as the staple for our meals. Given that most meat is so highly processed and cruelly produced, why do we still prize its flavours and textures?

Many people are flipping over packages or perusing websites to review the nutritional information and ingredient lists. The words listed don't really reflect the produce aisle. Where are the plants? Therefor we are witnessing a split in the marketplace around two very different approaches to eating more plant-based foods. The great debate happening right now is whether these processed plant-based meats fall under the 'processed foods' category (associated with negative health outcomes) or the 'plant foods' category (which are associated with superior health outcomes)."

Though the base of plant-based meats is a plant (usually soybeans, peas, and/or wheat), these ingredients have been highly processed. In most cases the main ingredients are stripped down to high-protein, low-fibre, colourless powders mixed with preservatives, oils, natural or artificial colouring, gums, and seasonings.

To summaries, some of the pros to plant based meals are animal welfare, environmental impacts, the resemblance to meat and health benefits. Cons to plant based meats are the controversial ingredients, the processing can remove plant nutrition and high price tags.

When shopping for plant-based meats, remember that plant-based and vegan don't mean the same thing, people sometimes assume they do. But not all plant-based meats are vegan. Some of them contain eggs, cheese, or milk, so check the ingredients if you're looking for a 100% plant-based food.

If GMO soy is a concern, look for products that are labelled organic or Non-GMO Project Verified. If refined oils are a concern, look for products that indicate the oil is sustainably sourced, organic, or expeller pressed. Some nutrition parameters that indicate a better choice are products that have no added sugars, 2 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 575 milligrams of sodium per serving.

While conventional wisdom of what makes plant-based eating so good for you isn't perfectly reflected in many of the plant-based meat alternatives out there, these products are better choices for the environment and animals—and they pass the test of looking and tasting a lot like meat. If they eventually lead to more whole plant-based foods in your diet (ie: beans, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, and fruits), then they're a good choice in that sense, too.

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