Dear Dr. Walt, I keep reading articles about the fake meats that are popping up in many grocery stores and restaurants. Are they actually healthier than real meat for me and the environment? — Meat Eater in Minnesota
For my entire medical career, I have advocated whole healthy foods and encouraged people to eat less meat and choose plant-based proteins. The latest fad in the “vegetarian” and “healthy food” category involves a slew of so-called “plant-based fake meats” that proport to be healthier for people and the planet.
Popular meatless hamburgers are sold under such brands as “Impossible Foods” and “Beyond Meat.” Other meatless fake-meat products are showing up all over the country. Qdoba pitches a trademarked “Impossible” protein product “made from plants.” White Castle serves a meatless burger called the “Impossible Slider.” Little Caesar’s serves the “Impossible Supreme” pizza. Subway has a “Beyond Meatball Marinara” sandwich. Even Dunkin’ Donuts serves a meatless “Beyond Breakfast Sausage Sandwich.”
The “Impossible Burger,” a “plant-based burger” that “bleeds,” can be found on the menus of Burger King, Fatburger, Cheesecake Factory, Red Robin, White Castle, and many other national restaurant chains. The company that makes it has stated that it is “tastier, juicier, and more nutritious … featuring 30% less sodium and 40% less saturated fat than our original recipe and just as much protein as ground beef from cows. 100% delicious and more versatile than ever.”
The term “ultra-processed” refers to food products that manufacturers have put through industrial processes and contain a wide range of ingredients. Some examples include carbonated drinks, sausages, chicken nuggets, candy, instant soups and noodles, ready-made meals, confectionaries, and processed meats. According to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), “all have low nutritional value and high energy density.” These products account for around almost 58% of the energy intake for Americans.
“Ultra-processed foods are rich in sodium, sugar, and fat; poor in fiber; and associated with high glycemic response and lower consumption of nonprocessed, nutritious food,” according to the NEJM. In addition, “Ultra-processed foods can contain additives, … contaminants … , or they might be packaged in materials associated with adverse health effects.” The Center for Food Safety (CFFS) says, “The Impossible Burger is manufactured from two different methods of genetically engineering soy products. This ‘impossible in nature’ union is neither healthier nor more environmentally friendly than other kinds of non-meat burgers.”
Scientists have already linked ultra-processed products with a range of dangerous medical conditions, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. An increase in ultra-processed foods consumption is associated with an overall higher mortality risk among adults as it is “associated with excess risks for CVD and death.” Coconut oil gives Beyond and Impossible burgers just about the same amount of saturated fats as meat burgers. Beyond has 6 grams, Impossible 8 grams, and beef 7.6 grams. Many consumers think coconut oil is healthy, but the American Heart Association has issued an advisory against consuming coconut oil, saying it is 82% saturated fat, which can raise LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, similar to the way butter and beef fat do.
Good Housekeeping studied the question, “Is an Impossible Burger healthy?” and wrote, “Compared to a same-sized beef patty, an Impossible Burger contains a comparable amount of calories (240 to 260), but it scores lower in a few regards: The first is that it contains way less protein, but the bigger downside is that it’s also 2 grams higher in saturated fat, likely because of the coconut oil that’s added … and also contains a lot more sodium — about 15% of your recommended value, compared to just 4 percent in plain beef.”
A June 2019 article on “Meat Substitutes” in Today’s Dietician, the journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommended, “Of the thousands of meat substitutes on the market, some are minimally processed and made with whole foods while others are highly processed and contain additives and flavorings; reading ingredient labels carefully is paramount. Consumers who want the most minimally processed meat alternatives should aim for products predominantly made with beans, lentils, tempeh, and tofu, and that use herbs and spices for flavor.”
The article goes on to say, “Not all meat substitutes are made equally. Certain meat substitutes contain cheap fillers, which offer little or no nutrients. Tell clients to opt for meat substitutes that are made with as many whole plant foods as possible. Some are made with a laundry list of ultra-processed ingredients, while others are made with nutritious ingredients such as black beans, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.”
Consumer Reports (CR) said of these fake meats, “Are these new options harbingers of a food revolution that will feed the world without animal cruelty or environmental harm? Or will they unleash unforeseen health risks and disruptions to our ecosystem? Or something in between? Finding answers to those and other questions isn’t easy, partly because there’s not yet much research on some of the products. CR’s food safety experts, in fact, caution that some companies may be moving faster than the research warrants.” In answer to the question, “Are they healthier than beef?” the CR experts conclude, “Not so much.”
Despite this, according to NBC News, “Beyond Meat and its privately held rival Impossible Foods have recently grabbed headlines … (touting) the environmental benefits of abstaining from meat into a key marketing tool for their products — drawing some skepticism from environmental researchers who say plant diets are healthier and less carbon-emitting than producing processed plant-based products.”
While companies marketing fake meats brag about their environmental benefits, researchers are increasingly pointing out that for people wanting to substantially lower their carbon footprint, an unprocessed plant-based diet is far healthier for people and the planet. CFFS wrote, “Replacing conventional animal products with these ultra-processed, poorly studied, and under-regulated genetically engineered products is not” at all healthy nor “the solution to our factory farm and climate crisis.”
Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, in an NBC News interview, said, “It makes sense to develop alternatives to beef. … Impossible and Beyond tap into this market; however, while their processed products have about half the carbon footprint than chicken does, they also have five times more of a footprint than a bean patty. So Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it’s the most climate-friendly thing to do — that’s a false promise.”
It appears to me that many are falling head-over-heels in love with the processed food industry’s deceptive attempt to have consumers mistake many of these “plant-based fake meat” products with healthy plant-based foods. As a result, we’re starting to see a backlash against these products and some of their dubious claims (see here, here, and here).
Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, when asked by Good Housekeeping, “So which is better: the Beyond Burger or a hamburger?” wrote, “It all comes down to your eating style. If you’re a vegetarian because of animal rights or because it’s better for the planet, and you miss the taste of a burger, this is a great option once in a while, though a bean- or veggie-based burger is going to have less salt and fat. But if you’re just looking for a healthier meal, the Beyond Burger is no healthier than a grass-fed beef burger, turkey burger, or chicken burger. You should find the best meat you can afford — organic if possible — keep to small patties of 4 ounces or less and rotate through your favorites.”
In general, I continue to recommend against routinely ingesting processed food — especially ultra-processed food, which I classify as both “junk food” and “potentially dangerous food.” My advice remains: eat whole foods that are primarily whole plant-based and minimally processed and with few to any additives; and avoid the regular intake of ultra-processed foods of any type.