Plant-based meat isn’t exactly new, but there’s been a growing number of plant-based meat products showing up in grocery stores in recent years. Plant-based burgers and nuggets are even popping up on restaurant menus. 

Plant-based meats aren’t just for vegetarians and vegans. The latest plant-based meat products are designed to look and taste like real meat to help meat-lovers enjoy more plant-based meals. 

Eating more plant foods in place of meat is linked to better health, whereas high intakes of fatty meats and processed meats are linked to chronic health problems, including heart disease and some cancers. Eating less meat also supports the environment, since animal agriculture requires a lot of natural resources and is a major producer of greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.

If you’re considering a plant-based diet, but worried you’ll miss favorites like chicken tenders, cheeseburgers, or pasta with meat sauce, plant-based meats might seem like the perfect solution.

Are plant-based meat products healthy? How do they taste? And how is plant-based meat made to look and taste like actual meat? Keep reading to learn the answers to these commonly asked questions about plant-based meat.

What Is Plant-Based Meat?

Plant-based meats are meat alternatives that refer to a group of meat-like products that are made from plants instead of animals. From burger patties to sausages, bacon, hot dogs, meatballs, strips, ground protein, crumbles, and more, you can find plant-based meat to replace animal protein in almost every recipe you can think of. 

Innovations in food science have allowed the latest wave of plant-based meat products to have a similar appearance, taste, and texture as their counterparts made from animal protein. Some plant-based proteins even have comparable nutrient profiles to actual meat. How does plant-based meat achieve these results?

How Is Plant-Based Meat Made?

To achieve similar nutrition and a mouthfeel that compares to the real deal, many plant-based meat products are made with similar amounts of protein, fat, and water as animal-based meats. But, of course, the protein is sourced from plants instead of animals. 

Typically, plant-based meats contain pea or soy protein as the protein source. Depending on the product, you may also see proteins from other types of beans, lentils, wheat, rice, or potatoes on the ingredient list. They also contain oils, like canola, coconut, or sunflower oils to replicate the fat content found in regular meat. The protein and fat sources are processed with cutting-edge food technology to create a texture similar to actual meat.

As for taste and color, plant-based meats may contain a blend of spices, natural flavors, and natural coloring from plants, such as beet juice to recreate the pink hue of beef products. Impossible Foods, creator of the Impossible Burger, adds heme iron derived from plants to create a meaty flavor.

Are Plant-Based Meats Healthy?

Eating less meat and more plant-based meals can help lower the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. However, that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to eat plant-based meat products every day. As a runner and a cyclist I eat plant-based meats a couple times each week.

Plant-based meats are naturally cholesterol-free, which can support healthy cholesterol levels and heart health when they’re used to replace traditional meats. Many plant-based meat products also contain a decent amount of fiber from plant ingredients, which can support digestive health.

Some plant-based meat products are on par with actual meat when it comes to less-than-ideal aspects of nutrition. Depending on the product, plant-based meats can still contain a good bit of unhealthy saturated fat and sodium, so be sure to read the Nutrition Facts label. 

A 2021 study found individuals who replace meat with plant-based meat products had less nutritious diets than those who replace meat with single-ingredient foods, like tofu, lentils, and nuts, had more complete nutrient intakes.

Those that ate more plant-based meats failed to meet the daily requirement for several essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium, and magnesium. They also exceeded the recommended daily intake of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. This suggests that relying too much on plant-based meats may displace important nutrients from whole foods. 

The bottom line? Plant-based meats can help you eat more plant-based meals, but they should be used on occasion as part of a varied and balanced diet.

How to Use Plant-Based Meat Products

Most plant-based meat products will brown like actual meat. Heat-and-eat items, like meatballs and sausages, can be prepared with the same cooking techniques you’d use with meat, such as searing, baking, or grilling. 

You can add plant-based ground meat and crumbles to any recipe you’d normally use ground meat, like tacos, casseroles, soups, and sauces.

Of course, you don’t need plant-based meats to enjoy more plant-based meals. You can build a variety of protein-packed, meatless meals with beans, lentils, tofu, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. 

Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Meat Products

Here are some pros and cons to consider before trying plant-based meat:

Pros

  • Animal-free foods are better for the environment and support animal welfare
  • Plant-based meats are vegetarian and vegan-friendly
  • A wide selection of products offers variety
  • Can be a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
  • Naturally cholesterol free

Cons

  • Many plant-based meats contain soy and wheat, which are common food allergens
  • Some plant-based meat products contain high amounts of saturated fat and sodium 
  • Availability can be limited depending on the location

Takeaway

Besides being better for the environment, eating more plant-based meals or switching to a plant-based diet can help you reduce your intake of calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol to support weight loss and improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 

Plant-based meats are meat-like products, such as ready-made burger patties and meatballs, that are made entirely from plants. These products can help you enjoy more plant-based meals without giving up traditional meat dishes.

If you’re trying to cut back on how much meat you eat, try preparing more meals made with whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds for protein. Plant-based meats can be a good option for eating more protein or for satisfying cravings for real meat.

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