Plant-based foods continue to gain popularity in the American eating landscape as not only a trendy approach to food, but one that holds appeal to carnivores and herbivores alike. Inherently plant-centered proteins like beans (including soy), lentils, peas (split or black-eyed) nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast, have always added protein to mealtime, but now there is a bounty of plant-based “meats” which are shoving aside traditional meat, poultry and seafood on the plate.
Plant-based meat, which also goes by the aliases “meat analog,” “mock meat,” or “meat alternative,” has been spied in weekly grocery carts and is gracing more restaurant menus. But, are these meat substitutes nutritious? Here we explore what ingredients are found in these products and if it makes a positive contribution to our health.
How is plant-based meat made?
Plant-based meats are designed to be mostly comparable in protein, sodium and fat to their animal-based counterparts. This is done on purpose to mimic the experience of eating traditional burgers, grinds, patties, sausages, etc.
There is a common theme among most meat substitutes, including that protein content is often derived from wheat, soy and/or pea protein, as well as the addition of canola, sunflower, safflower or coconut oil for texture and flavor. Look at how some common choices compare:
- Simple Truth Emerge Chick’n Grind:
Main ingredients: wheat protein, wheat flour, expeller pressed canola oil and wheat starch
Nutrition highlights: 1 gram(g) saturated fat and 4g fiber per 4.5-ounce serving
- Simple Truth Meatless Crumbles:
Main ingredients: soy protein concentrate, natural flavor, wheat, isolated soy protein, expeller pressed sunflower oil
Nutrition highlights: 140 calories, 0g saturated fat, 3g fiber, 23g protein, and 15% Daily Value (DV)
iron per 1-cup serving
- Simple Truth Meatless Breakfast Patties:
Main ingredients: soy protein concentrate, expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or canola oil, wheat, isolated soy protein
Nutrition highlights: 100 calories and 0.5g saturated fat per 1-patty serving
- Simple Truth Plant-Based Kielbasa Sausage:
Main ingredients: vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed safflower oil, wheat protein isolate, apple cider vinegar
Nutrition highlights: 1.5g saturated fat and 27g protein per 1-sausage serving
- Impossible Burger:
Main ingredients: soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein
Nutrition highlights: 25% DV iron, 50% DV niacin (vitamin D3), 50% DV zinc, and 2,350% DV thiamin (vitamin B1) per 4-ounce serving
- Beyond Beef Burger:
Main ingredients: pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein
Nutrition highlights: 20g protein and 20% DV iron per 4-ounce serving
- Gardein Fishless Filets:
Main ingredients: canola oil, textured vegetable protein, soy protein concentrate
Nutrition highlights: 180 calories, 1g saturated fat, 3g fiber, and 30mg EPA and DHA omega-3 fats per 2-piece serving
What should you look for on the label?
Major points of discernment in purchasing plant-based meats include evaluating the ingredients, calories, saturated fat, sodium, protein and added vitamins or minerals in the product. Pick a product thats one-serving recommendation aligns to your calorie goals for a meal, and ideally contributes no more than 3g saturated fat and 400mg of sodium. Most healthy adults should strive for around 20-30g protein per meal, so aim for a plant-based meat that will reach these numbers when combined with all other meal components. Confirm with a registered dietitian about your unique protein requirements.
Plant-based meat nutrition
When directly substituted in place of meat (including pork, beef, bison and lamb), poultry (including chicken and turkey), or seafood (including fish and shellfish), plant-based meats are lower in cholesterol and are often higher in fiber. Keep in mind that balanced plant-based nutrition includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.