Plant Based Meat: What Consumers Need to Know
Plant based meat is becoming a popular alternative to real meat, but does it really offer a healthier option?
Companies have developed imitation meat in a lab using plant proteins. You can now find plant-based beef, chicken, pork, and other meat substitutes.
The latest plant-based meats come close to resembling real beef. However, they may not provide the health benefits that companies claim – and it seems to be very expensive. Here is what you should know about this latest trend.
- What is Plant Based Meat?
- Does Plant Based Meat Taste the Same as Real Meat?
- Matching the Taste of Real Beef May Be Impossible
- Plant Based Meat vs. Real Meat: What’s Healthier?
- Is Plant Based Meat Better for the Environment?
What Is Plant Based Meat?
Plant-based meat was created as a vegan alternative to beef. The plant-based meat industry has exploded in the past several years, leading to a variety of imitation meat products.
Almost every grocery store and fast food restaurant offers some type of plant-based meat. However, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat stand out as the best-selling vegan alternatives. These vegan burgers were introduced in 2016 and are now commonly available throughout North America.
Unlike tofu burgers and veggie burgers of the past, the new burgers are made with a substance produced in a lab. Instead of using a combination of beans, rice, peas, and tofu, plant-based meats are made with modified plant proteins.
Does Plant Based Meat Taste the Same as Real Meat?
Three main factors that tend to influence how people perceive taste: appearance, texture, and flavor. If a food does not look appetizing or how you expect it to look, you are less likely to enjoy the taste. To make plant-based meats look closer to the real thing, companies use plant extracts for coloring.
The Impossible Burger contains leghemoglobin. It is a molecule found in legume roots and gives the food a reddish color. According to Impossible Foods, leghemoglobin also contributes to the meaty flavor of their vegan burgers. Beyond Meat gives its burgers a reddish color using beet extracts.
While beef has a red color that slowly browns as it cooks, it also has small white flecks of animal fat. Plant-based meats use coconut oil to recreate the same look. The result is almost uncanny until you bite into it.
Matching the Taste of Real Beef May Be Impossible
Beef is chewy and springy while plants are crunchy. When you bite into a real burger, the animal proteins in the beef help give it the distinct springy texture. The unique texture is found in other meats as animals are flexible and need to move their muscles. Plant cells are much more rigid. This gives plants a crunchier texture.
When trying to create a veggie burger, the patty is often crumbly. Depending on the moisture content of the plant-based burger, it may also feel a little mushy.
Plant-based burgers closely resemble the real thing. The textures are also similar. However, real beef is chewier.
Even with years of experimentation, companies cannot quite match the taste of beef. The flavors come close to matching beef but you should be able to taste the difference.
Plant Based Meat vs. Real Meat: What’s Healthier?
Contrary to what people tend to believe, a plant-based burger is not comprised of whole foods. It is full of heavily processed ingredients.
If you are counting calories, switching to plant-based meats may not help you lose weight. Imitation burgers and beef burgers contain about the same calorie count and fat. However, in some cases, plant-based burgers have more calories and saturated fat.
To determine which is healthier, you need to look at the ingredients and other nutrition facts. Unfortunately, it is hard to determine the full list of ingredients in plant-based meats.
Companies use “natural flavors” to help recreate the taste of real beef. The exact formula used in imitation meat is typically a company secret.
When examining the labels, plant-based meat tends to have a long list of unrecognizable ingredients and processed foods. They also contain much more sodium.
The typical beef burger contains 77 mg of sodium while the most popular plant-based burgers have 370 to 390 mg per burger patty.
Lean beef is full of beneficial vitamins and minerals that your body depends on. Some of these nutrients are not found in plants, requiring you to obtain them from animal-based foods.
Studies also show that consuming lean beef with a balanced diet supports greater heart health. Beef only contributes to about 1% of sodium intake for the average American. It is also a leading source of potassium, which helps lower blood pressure.
Research also suggests that replacing carbohydrates with lean protein may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
The bottom line is that beef burgers are likely healthier for consumers compared to highly processed imitation burgers.
Is Plant Based Meat Better for the Environment?
Another claim from plant-based meat companies is that their products are better for the environment. Impossible Foods and other companies make these claims based on the idea that beef production harms the earth.
The truth is that the beef cattle industry supports ecosystems throughout North America. It offers a sustainable solution for addressing potential food shortages for the coming generations. Here are some of the ways that raising livestock helps the environment:
- Grazing cattle help protect grasslands
- Grasslands store significant amounts of carbon
- Water used in beef production is recycled
- GHG emissions continue to decrease
The natural grasslands in North America continue to shrink. Allowing cattle to graze the grasslands protects against further commercial development that may harm existing ecosystems. The water used also cycles back into the system.
The grasslands where cattle graze can store up to 200 tons of carbon per hectare. This helps offset some of the greenhouse gases (GHG) produced by the beef industry.
GHG emissions have also decreased significantly in modern times. Compared to 1981, beef production produced 15% fewer greenhouse gases in 2011.
The beef industry continues to lower its carbon footprint and provides many advantages to land use and the conservation of natural resources. Consuming beef as part of a balanced diet may also provide numerous health benefits.
While plant-based meats have come close to mimicking the taste and appearance of real beef, they may not provide the health benefits or environmental benefits that the marketing material suggests.