Plant-based meats are all the range in the United States, with patties manufactured by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in high demand and going mainstream. The environmental benefits of greater consumption of plant-based meat alternatives are clear. But experts say the processed nature and high sodium content of plant-based meats can be unhealthy.
Meat Alternatives Rise As Lifestyles Change
In August, Burger King began offering the meatless Impossible Whopper at all its locations across the United States. And it’s earned rave reviews. While vegetarian or vegan burgers have been around for decades, these new offerings, thanks to food science, are said to resemble the taste and texture of meat, especially when compared to a vegetarian burger made of beans or chickpeas.
Veganism, vegetarianism, and “flexitarianism” (eating less meat) are growing in popularity as more Americans adopt healthy lifestyles. Plant-based meats appeal in particular to flexitarians.
Are Plant-Based Meats Healthy?
John Mackey, the chief executive officer of Whole Foods, is among the more vocal critics of plant-based meats. He told CNBC last month, “I don’t think to eat highly processed foods is nutritious. I think people thrive on eating whole foods.” Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietician, concurred, telling CNBC that plant-based burgers “are not necessarily healthier than beef burgers.”
Cynthia Saas, a performance nutritionist said that instead of consuming processed food, we should consume whole ingredients. Dietitian and Nutritionist Amy Gorin raised concerns about the use of coconut oil, the use of which makes Impossible’s meat more caloric and high in saturated fat. The company has altered its recipe this year, replacing coconut oil with sunflower oil.
Both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger patties have almost fifty percent more sodium content than Burger King’s standard beef patty. Their fat and caloric content are also comparable to that of a beef patty. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), excess levels of sodium could put one at risk for high blood pressure, which it says is a leading risk factor for death for women in the United States. Nine out of ten Americans already consume excessive amounts of sodium, according to the AHA. Sodium-rich plant-based meats will at best keep American sodium intake at the present high rates.
The major plant-based meat brands tend to steer clear of chemical additives like propylene glycol that may be harmful at high doses. But that is not universally the case and so consumers are advised to inspect product labels closely.
The Environmental Impact of Plant-Based Meat
While plant-based meats aren’t necessarily healthier than animal meat products, they may address the ecological and ethical concerns of many.
Livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. According to the Center for Sustainable Systems, compared to animal meat, the production of vegan meat generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, consumes much less water, and uses 46 percent less energy in its production.
A study published earlier this year in the British medical journal The Lancet calls for a “Great Food Transformation” and recommends a shift toward a mainly plant-based diet for humans to create “sustainable food systems” that would reduce carbon emissions and improve biodiversity and water and land use.
There’s clear evidence that a mainly plant-based diet is good for humans and the environment. But that need not — and, arguably, should not — include processed plant-based meat.