Can eating meat kill you? Last year, the World Health Organization officially classified processed meats as a carcinogen, and declared that red meats were a "probable" carcinogen.
The WHO report – based on a review of 800 studies – shook up a lot of eaters, and likely caused some to turn to more vegetarian fare. But are packaged tofu burgers and tempeh bacon any better for you?
The answer likely is yes – but with some caveats, experts say.
"People will be healthier moving from animal protein to plant protein -- that's a big plus," says Janet Bond Brill, a Hellertown, Pennsylvania-based registered dietitian. "It's better for you, better for the animal and better for the planet."
In addition to the overall benefits of a vegan diet, a bonus of vegetarian meat alternatives is that they do not contain added nitrites or nitrates, says Reed Mangels, a registered dietitian and nutrition adviser for the Vegetarian Resource Group.
"Sodium nitrite is added to processed meats to stabilize their red color so that they don't look gray," he says. "This is not usually a concern for meat substitutes."
Health experts long have linked exposure to excessive levels of sodium nitrate with various health concerns.
Finally, most sellers of vegan and vegetarian products know their target customers are health-minded and look closely at the ingredients in the foods they buy, says Len Torine, executive director of the American Vegetarian Association.
Therefore, manufacturers of these foods are especially likely to create products that have no preservatives, minimal processing and fillers, no chemicals, and no additives, Torine says.
Health risks of meat substitutes
However, both Brill and Mangels note that some vegan meat alternatives contain high levels of one key ingredient -- sodium -- that can damage your health.
"Many of these meat analogs have a lot of added sodium, which is the health villain of all time," Brill says.
The makers of vegetarian meat substitutes add salt to their foods because it both preserves the food and makes it taste better, Brill says.
However, about 90 percent of Americans of all ages already consume too much sodium, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excessive sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure, and a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
Brill also notes that some meat analog products are breaded or fried in unhealthy oils.
Meanwhile, Mangels says many meat substitutes contain egg whites, which might pose trouble for people allergic to eggs, or to those following a vegan diet.
Healthy meat substitutes
So, which meat substitutes are best for your family's health?
Mangels mentions a few favorites. Yves Veggie Tofu Dogs have the lowest levels of sodium among any of the tofu hot dogs he has found. He adds that they don't have any trans fat or saturated fat.
For veggie bacon, good low-sodium choices include Tofurky Smoky Maple Bacon Tempeh and Upton Naturals Bacon Seitan, Mangels says.
Mangels says the best choice for veggie burgers largely depends on your nutrition issues. Amy's Kitchen makes a low-sodium California Veggie Burger based on wheat, vegetables and nuts.
But veggie burgers based on those ingredients tend to be lower in protein.
"If you're looking for a burger that's similar to a hamburger in terms of protein, I recommend looking for one with soy as a main ingredient," he says.
(Related reading: Browse our favorite veggie burger recipes.)
Sources of vegan protein
Brill urges people to look for less processed alternatives to meat substitutes. Good choices include meals based on protein-rich plant products such as:
"Look for the way nature intended for this food to be," she says. "The golden rule is the less processed, the better."
Still, if you are new to a vegetarian diet, choosing vegetable-based processed foods over animal-based processed foods is probably OK. "I don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good," she says. "It's a good first step."
Torine acknowledges that finding the best products can be a challenge. "There are literally thousands of meatless products on the market," he says.
He urges you to weigh all options, including smaller "mom-and-pop" manufacturers that often offer superior products.
"Look for low calories from fat, minimal sodium, good protein levels, no artificial stuff," he says, adding that you should choose the product that "suits your requirements, and tastes good. Period."
Ready to eat meatless? Check out our Meatless Monday recipe books for delicious meal ideas!