Plant-Based Alternatives Vs Real Meat… What’s Healthier?


Regardless of whether you prefer real meat or not, plant-based burgers have infiltrated the burger world and they’re here to stay. In fact, some of the beef or chicken options from veggie sellers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are actually really good. In fact, they can even be found on tons of different menus across the country, both in fast-food joints and in sit-down restaurants.

Unlike plant-based burgers from before, these days more and more Americans are making the choice to eat plant-based meat alternatives. According to the International Food Information Council, around 65 percent have eaten them within the last year alone. This constitutes around 1 in 5 people eating a plant-based meat alternative item every week, and another 1 in 5 people eating one of these types of products every day.

A number of these meat substitutes have become more popular due to fast-food companies choosing to use and highlight them on their menu. Although it depends on their locations, here are some of the fast food companies that offer plant-based meat options, and what they’re called below:

  • McPlant Burger at McDonald’s
  • Beyond Famous Star burger at Carl’s Jr.
  • Impossible Breakfast Sandwich at Starbucks
  • Beyond Avocado Taco at Del Taco
  • Impossible Slider at White Castle
  • Beyond Fried Chicken at KFC
  • Impossible Whopper at Burger King

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have proven to be the two most popular brands for plant-based meat alternatives, but they aren’t the only ones available. According to The New York Times, other such companies include Nestlé Sweet Earth, Tyson Foods, Hormel Foods and Smithfield are other key players in the plant-based meat field.

The belief is that this wide variety aren’t going to be the only ones to offer these types of food, but experts claim this is just the beginning for plant-based meat companies. Researchers anticipate that the market will continue to grow, while the products that will eventually become available will also incorporate cellular agriculture, as well as a much wider selection of meat, poultry and even fish. Moreover, it will be even less processed, while coming from companies that strive for sustainability.


What Exactly is Plant-Based Meat Made Of?

Most people believe that plant-based meat is made from quinoa, black beans, lentils, and other types of ingredients that usually make up veggie nuggets or burgers, but that’s not the case. Since the meat is meant to copy the texture, appearance, and taste of real meat, it still hasn’t received the true seal of approval from most real meat eaters.

Explained by Denver-based founder of Kelli McGrane Nutrition, Kelli McGrane, RD, “While most of these burgers are vegan, they are likely more appealing to omnivores who are looking for ways to cut back on their intake of animal products while still enjoying a similar texture and taste.”

In order to better understand, here is an actual list of some of the most common ingredients used by these plant-based meat companies as shared on their websites:

Impossible Burger Ingredients:

  • soy protein concentrate
  • coconut oil
  • sunflower oil
  • potato protein
  • methylcellulose
  • yeast extract
  • salt
  • gums
  • water
  • additives, including vitamin B12, zinc, vitamin B6, thiamin (B1) and niacin.


Beyond Burger Ingredients:

  • water
  • pea protein
  • expeller-pressed canola oil
  • refined coconut oil
  • rice protein
  • natural flavors
  • dried yeast
  • cocoa butter
  • methylcellulose
  • less than 1% of potato starch
  • salt
  • potassium chloride
  • beet juice color
  • apple extract
  • pomegranate concentrate
  • sunflower lecithin
  • vinegar
  • lemon juice concentrate
  • vitamins and minerals (zinc sulfate, niacinamide [vitamin B3], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], cyanocobalamin [vitamin B12], calcium pantothenate

Beyond Fried Chicken Ingredients:

  • Water
  • Enriched wheat flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid)
  • Soy Protein Isolate
  • Expeller Pressed Canola Oil
  • Enriched bleached wheat flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid)
  • Wheat Gluten
  • Natural Flavor
  • Yeast Extract
  • Less than 2 percent of: Breadcrumbs (Wheat Flour, Distilled Vinegar, Sea Salt, Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate)
  • Inactive Yeast, Spice Extractives)
  • Chili Pepper
  • Citric Acid
  • Garlic Powder
  • Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate)
  • Modified Wheat Starch
  • Onion Powder
  • Pea Extract
  • Rice Flour
  • Salt
  • Spice
  • Titanium Dioxide (for color)

What Are the Advantages of Meatless Chicken and Plant-Based Burgers?

There are a number pros when it comes to alternative meat, such as:

1. They Contain Heart-Healthy Soy

In a June 2019 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the study found that with soy protein, which is the type they mostly use in these meatless burgers – including Impossible Burger – has a consistent cholesterol-lowering effect. Moreover, another meta-analysis study published in Circulationjournal in April 2019, they found that swapping the plant proteins for red meat also helped reduce the risk of heart disease.

2. They Have More Fiber and Less Cholesterol Than Regular Meat Burgers

Unlike regular red meat burgers, which contain around 88 grams of cholesterol for the 90 percent lean beef burgers according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), neither Beyond Burgers or Impossible Burgers contain cholesterol. Mayo Clinic shares that high cholesterol levels should be something to avoid as it is linked with a heightened risk of heart disease.

In addition, these plant-based meat alternatives also contain more fiber. The USDA shares that ‘with 2 g of fiber in Beyond Burger and 3 g in an Impossible Burger, compared with 0 g in beef burgers.’ Plus, the Cleveland Clinic adds that fiber has a number of health benefits, such as helping lower cholesterol levels and aid in weight control.

3. It May Help Combat Antibiotic Resistance From Eating Regular Meat

One other issue that comes with meat eating is how some farmers use antibiotics among their animals to promote growth. Mayo Clinic warns that the use of antibiotics in this way can also cause a resistance to antibiotics and allow the spread of bacteria. For those that consume food with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it can cause an infection that cannot be treated using antibiotics. This can become a problem since your body will lack the ability to fight off infection easily, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it “a global health emergency.”

4. It Encourages More Plant-Based Eating

Experts also agree that by eating meat alternatives may also encourage people to consume a more plant-based diet as well, which research shows offers more health benefits. According to Cleveland Clinic, individuals that follow a nutritious plant-based diet can help lower high blood pressure, the risk of heart disease, diabetes, digestive disease, obesity, and colon and breast cancers. However, a lot of the benefits that come from choosing to consume a plant-based diet usually come from whole, unprocessed foods, such as veggies, fresh fruits, nuts, legumes, and seeds.

What About the Disadvantages of These Processed Meat Alternatives?

Just as there are a number of health benefits to choosing to go meatless, these meat alternatives may not be so black and white. There are also a few downsides to choosing to go meatless, such as:

1. They Have a High Saturated Fat Content

One of the main reasons why people choose to eat meatless burgers is because they are assumed to be one of the more heart-healthy alternatives to eating red meat, which is considered quite high in saturated fat. The American Heart Association shares that having too much saturated fat may raise cholesterol levels and put people at a raised risk of heart disease and stroke when eaten in excess. A February 2020 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that ‘a higher intake of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, or poultry was linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.’

The USDA shares that a burger that’s made with higher-fat beef (80 percent lean beef) has 6 grams of saturated fat for a 3-ounce patty, while a burger made with 90 percent lean beef has around 4 grams of saturated fat for the same size patty. But it may be surprising to learn that processed meatless burgers aren’t necessarily better. An example of this is that there are 5 grams of saturated fat in the Beyond Burger, and 8 grams in the Impossible Burger.

Allison J. Stowell, RD, from a Bethel, Connecticut-based company, Guiding Stars – which is a company that provides a nutrition labeling system with the goal of helping customers make healthier food choices – says, “If reducing your intake of saturated fat is a goal, then choosing one of these burgers over a 90 percent lean beef burger is not a beneficial choice.”

Stowell goes on to say that choosing a leaner turkey burger or a traditional burger would be even better since they both have lower amounts of saturated fat. The USDA

Stowell says a leaner turkey burger or a traditional veggie burger would be better because they’re lower in saturated fat. A traditional, 70 g veggie burger has 1 g of saturated fat, according to the USDA.

Stowell notes, though, that traditional veggie burgers usually have fewer calories and fewer grams of protein, so they may not keep you full for very long. For example, a veggie burger has 124 calories and 11 g of protein, while a turkey burger has 170 calories and 21 g of protein. 

2. They Have A High Sodium Content

Stowell also points out that the American Heart Association (AHA) claims that Americans eat too much sodium, and these types of burgers have high amounts of sodium. In fact, they have more sodium content than traditional beef or turkey burgers. Beyond Burger contains 390 milligrams (mg), while Impossible Burger contains 370 mg, which is around 15 to 16 percent of your daily value. Meanwhile, Beyond Chicken has 450 mg of sodium.

In comparison, a 4-ounce patty of 93 percent lean ground turkey only has 78 mg of sodium, explains the USDA, while a 4 oz beef patty that’s 90 percent lean has 77 mg of sodium. As for traditional veggie burgers, they have 398 mg of sodium per patty, which is roughly 3 oz.

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, while this may not be a major issue if you limit other processed foods, but if you do consume too much sodium, it can lead to other health issues such as high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

So when asked if you should add these meatless burgers to your diet, Stowell shares, “As the nutritional facts of meat alternative burgers make clear, these options may not be the best choice despite the ‘health halo’ that surrounds them.”

3. They Tend to Be Highly Processed

One other issue is that these meat alternatives can be qualified as ‘processed foods,’ says McGrane. Experts also recommend that you limit processed foods since they tend to have a large number of less-than-healthy ingredients that are added to them, like preservatives, sweeteners, and oils, says the AHA. A diet rich in processed foods basically means that you’re getting too much sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats.

Is Fake Meat Better for the Environment?

For some consumers, they prefer to eat fake meat because it’s better for the environment. Stowell says, “No doubt, reducing our intake of red meat is a choice we should all consider to lessen our carbon footprint and embrace sustainability goals since red meat production has significant environmental impacts.”

However, regardless of these products being more sustainable, their production process could still have negative effects on the environment. According to an article in the New York Times, Beyond Meat is on par with Tyson, which is considered the world’s second-largest chicken, beef and pork processor, when it comes to sustainability. But a large reason for this outcome is that there is a lack of data on the greenhouse gas emissions for these otherwise alternative meat companies. But Beyond Meat is planning to release data within the year.


What is the Future of Meat-Free Alternatives to Chicken and Beef?

Experts think that this is just the beginning when it comes to meat alternative options that will be on the market. Co-director and industry fellow of the Alternative Meats Lab at the University of California in Berkeley, Celia Homyak, PhD, says, “I think the industry will continue to grow — it’s not going away.” Alternative Meats Lab helps entrepreneurs and researchers look into what the future looks like for plant-based meat. She also believes that consumers will have a wider range of meat alternatives on the grocery store shelves soon.

She adds, “There’s a lot of room for expansion in that space because we’re really only there with ground beef or ground sausage. There’s a lot of room for growth around mimicking whole muscle meat, like chicken breast or fish filets.”

Homyak also believes that there will be more emphasis on using whole fruits and vegetables in these meat alternatives as a way to cut down on processing. One example, she thinks, is to use jackfruit or hummus as a key ingredient, rather than just trying to mimic meat using processed ingredients. She says, “I think that society and the younger generation is gearing toward less processing, more whole foods, and more sustainably driven.”

Homyak also says that to become more sustainable, companies should compare themselves to each other in order to push them to be better. Homyak explains, “I think a lot of the current claims are a direct comparison to the meat industry, and if [a meat alternative company is] ever comparing itself to the meat industry, it’s going to win. I think there needs to be a shift — and there is starting to be a shift — with kind of highlighting within the alternative and plant-based food space to say ‘Hey, obviously we know we’re better than beef, but why don’t we start comparing ourselves to each other?’ and really try to push the envelope here.”

Another example is that these companies can used recycled plastic or paper packaging to be more sustainable. According to Impossible Foods, they have made new strides in recycled tray and packaging for their patties.

Moreover, they expect to see a rise of cellular agriculture, which grows animal cells in a lab setting instead of relying on livestock. According to Tufts University, this is a subject of research for them, receiving a $10 million grant from the USDA in October of 2021.

Distinguished Professor at Tufts, and chair of the department of biomedical engineering, David Kaplan, PhD, who happens to be leading this initiative at Tufts shares, “The argument is that, nutritionally, [products made from cellular agriculture] should be at least as good as what you would get from traditional livestock because you’re using the same biological material, but in principle a lot healthier because you’re not overprocessing or adding a lot of other stuff.”

Dr. Kaplan also says that someday, whether in three years or 30 years from now, “The supermarket is going to look like a cabinet full of plant-based, a cabinet full of cellular agriculture, and you’ll still have your traditional livestock. And the consumer can make their own choices.”

The Bottom Line

So the question remains, should you try meat alternatives or not? There are a number of positives when it comes to plant-based meat alternatives; they can help lessen your meat intake while lowering your risk of other health issues, while lessening your carbon footprint at the same time. But choosing plant-based meat alternatives aren’t always the healthier choice due to the fact that they are still processed, and may contain loads of fat and sodium. In the meantime, be sure to check labels, figure out which ones you like, and see whether they are worth changing up your diet.