Animal agriculture has a massive impact on our world. There are huge environmental consequences to our planet, in part because it takes a lot of space, water, and food to raise animals for slaughter. There are also ethical consierations. As such, some people are trying to transition to diets that contain fewer meat products and more plant based products. Others are doing it for health reasons. The market has rushed to meet demand and in recent years, meat substitutes have exploded in popularity. It wasn't that long ago that fake burgers had a weird texture and sometimes an odd taste that was reminiscent of meat, but having tasted some of those rubbery patties, I'd say they were far from the real thing. But with chemistry and technology, companies have changed that, and now offer a bevy of products that mimic meat more closely than ever. Some meat eaters can't even tell the difference. So how healthy is this stuff? The short answer, unfortunately, is that it is debatable.
Plant-based meals have been consistently linked to better health outcomes. There are many kinds of vegetarian diets, many of which have been linked to better health. Mediterranean-style diets, which are rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy fats, and lean meats, have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Western-style diets that have high levels of fats, sugars, and processed foods, on the other hand, have been connected with a significantly higher risk of a variety of health issues including metabolic disease.
But while plant-based diets seem to be healthier for most people, most fake meat presents a bit of a conundrum to the conscious consumer because meat substitutes are typically made with highly processed ingredients. A growing body of research has shown that highly processed foods including cereals and frozen pizza, are linked to health risks. Meat substitutes that are currently available use a lot of refinement to create the product that ends up being sold.
For example, plant-based burgers that are meant to replace meat are often made with palm oil and chemically refined coconut oil, giving the patties a juicy texture. Beetroot extracts have been used to replicate the color change that happens as meat is cooked. Researchers also genetically engineered yeast to produce soy leghemoglobin, to make a plant-based patty 'bleed' like a burger.
The nutritional content of plant-based burgers also varies widely depending on the product and the manufacturer. Some are full of fillers and additives, while others contain more whole ingredients. Most use a soy, pea, or wheat protein as the main component, then add fat, thickeners, starches, salt, and natural or artificial flavors. Some companies also boost the final product with vitamins. The ingredients are usually just mixed together, then churned out as patties, or whatever shape is desired.
These burgers usually contain about the same amount of protein and fat as an animal burger. While plant-based patties tend to have higher levels of fiber, which is generally a good thing, they also often have more salt, which is not so good.
It seems that for most people, consuming fake meat should be fine if done in moderation, which is a good rule of thumb for many foods.
A small study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2020 found that when people swapped two or more servings of animal meat a day for plant-based meat, their levels of LDL cholesterol and TMAO (a heart disease risk factor) both went down after eight weeks. Those on the plant-based swap diet also consumed less saturated fat and more fiber.
With growing interest and demand for plant-based foods, it seems likely that more will become available, and it seems likely that some companies will release products with less processing to give consumers more options. Scientists are also still working on developing meats that are 3D printed with bioinks, or grown as cells in culture.