Over the past decade, the meatless meat market has kind of exploded. In the old days, i.e. the 90s, vegetarians basically had to choose between salty hard-pressed cardboard and bland, mushy cardboard as meat substitutes. These days, however, plant-based meats — especially ground beef and plant-based burgers — literally bleed to our attention. But are all fake meats also in good health and tasty? I contacted nutritionists to find out what to look for and what to avoid when buying plant-based meat.
First, it’s crucial to remember that fake meat brands and companies are in the market for different reasons. “Some are designed to appeal to meat lovers as a plant-based alternative, with the look and feel of real meat,” Brooklyn-based registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello told Mic. These are products like Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger, which are meant to mimic the experience of eating meat as much as possible. Others are designed simply to be healthy meat substitutes and don’t necessarily taste like meat, cook like meat, or even look like meat at all, Pasquariello says.
So when shopping for plant-based meat substitutes, you should first consider what you expect from fake meat. Do you want it to look and taste like animal meat, to provide a good source of protein and other nutrients, to be good for the environmentor a combination?
The best meat imposters also tend to be the most processed.
If you’re trying to find the closest meat-like experience, Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are the best, and they have the added benefit of be greener than most real meats, Dana Ellis Hunnes, a Los Angeles dietitian, assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of Recipe for survival: what you can do to live a healthier and more environmentally friendly life, says Mic. “Beyond and Impossible Burgers have great flavor, but are higher in processed products which are also higher in saturated fat,” she says. That doesn’t mean they’re bad for you, per se, but Hunnes recommends against making them an everyday staple.
Plant-based meat made from whole foods is more nutritious.
“Generally, the most nutritious plant-based meat you’ll find will be one made with whole, simple ingredients,” says Pasquariello. She recommends reading labels to make sure what you’re buying has fiber, protein, and limited additives.
And, notes Hunnes, you need to be especially vigilant about the sodium and fat content. “[Plant-based meats] are still highly processed foods, and they are often high in sodium and, depending on the brand, high in saturated fat,” she explains.
If you are not educated on how to read food labels, Pasquariello has some advice. “Try to look for plant-based meat alternatives that contain at least 8-10g of protein per serving (or more – some offer more than 20-30g), with at least 5g of fiber per serving and 300mg sodium or less per serving,” she says.
But don’t just focus on the nutritional content; also look at the ingredients. “Ingredients that look like real food tend to be less processed and healthier than those that are highly processed and unrecognizable,” says Hunnes.
Plant-based meats recommended by nutritionists may surprise you.
One of Pasquariello’s favorites is a black bean burger made by the brand real vegetables. “These are high in protein, as well as fibre, and contain no saturated fat. The ingredient list is very simple, and they’re high in vitamin A and magnesium, while being relatively low in sodium – plenty for your money,” she says. Although they’re a relatively unknown option, a quick search reveals they’re in the refrigerated section of several grocery stores, as well as a few online markets.
Hunes likes Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burgers better because they contain recognizable ingredients and have a healthier nutritional profile than many processed foods. In fact, many of the dozens of dietitians I contacted for this article said these veggie burgers were their favorites, citing the right balance of taste and nutrition. Frankly, I was surprised by this; I’ve been a vegetarian for decades and never tried these. The packaging looks a bit medical, and I’m always skeptical of products packaged with a doctor’s name — shades of dr atkin – but that just goes to show you can’t judge a burger by its cover.
You probably shouldn’t be eating plant-based meat every day.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but you shouldn’t eat meat at every meal, even if it’s plant-based. “I would be hard pressed to say that all vegan meat burgers are a ‘healthy’ food,” says Hunnes. “Most of them are not a health food, and they are not necessarily intended to be diet foods. It’s an eco-friendly and humane food, and as a vegan myself, from both perspectives, I recommend vegan meats as a “treat” or once-a-week food, rather than an everyday food – but animal meats shouldn’t be an everyday food either.