April 12, 2021
Plant-based burgers: Are they healthy?
BY Heather Alexander
Research shows it’s best to limit red meat because it can increase your risk for colorectal cancer.
With that in mind, plant-based meat might sound like a good alternative. These products are designed to look and taste like meat; whereas, traditional veggie burgers are not.
And plant-based meat is growing in popularity. Plant-based meat burgers can be found at major fast-food restaurants, as well grocery stores.
But it can be hard to understand what’s in this new “meat” and whether it’s a healthy choice.
We asked our wellness dietitian Lindsey Wohlford about plant-based meat.
What counts as plant-based meat?
Traditional plant-based protein sources like tofu sometimes get a bad rap because they don’t really resemble meat. So a number of companies have come up with products that mimic the flavor and texture of actual meat. They are sold in packets that look like ground beef or pork sausages, and you can buy them as plant-based burger patties. Plant-based meat may not pass as vegetarian or vegan, depending on the ingredients and the way it’s prepared.
What is plant-based meat made from?
One of the most popular brands is made from genetically modified soy with heme iron added to it. Heme is the component of meat that provides the meaty flavor. Some plant-based meats replicate this heme through fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Vegans may not want to eat this ingredient because some companies have tested it on animals as part of the Food and Drug Administration approval process. Other plant-based meats are made from protein that comes from peas. Many contain fats like coconut oil to give the moist texture of meat.
Is plant-based meat healthy?
The saturated fat content in plant-based meats can be lower than real meat, but my concern is that these are highly processed and, in some cases, genetically modified foods. There are not a lot of natural nutrients in these. We really want to aim toward eating food in its natural whole form. The reality is that something isn’t healthy just because it is plant-based.
Another plant-based food with questionable health benefits is soy yogurt when it contains a lot of sugar. Chips are a plant-based food, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they are healthy.
A healthy plant-based diet means eating whole plant foods like fresh veggies, fruits, beans and legumes.
Should you switch from red meat to plant-based meat?
If you’re looking at processed versus unprocessed, the beef burger is actually less processed. And if you choose a lean cut, it may also be lower in fat. If you are a vegetarian or vegan and you want something similar to a burger for a treat, plant-based meat can be an option. But I would not recommend swapping out meat with these products all the time.
Red meat can fit into a healthy diet, but limit it to less than 18 ounces per week and use healthy cooking methods. We recommend you also limit processed meat. Avoiding processed meat is best for cancer prevention.
Why are whole foods better than processed foods?
The way I like to explain it is that processed foods are almost like food that has been predigested. Some of the breakdown process has already been taken care of for you, and many of the healthy nutrients that are the key to reducing disease risk have been removed.
If you're eating a whole food, your body has to do more work, and that takes time. You stay full longer, which helps with weight management. Most whole foods have a lot of fiber, natural proteins and other nutrients and healthy fats that slow digestion and metabolism. So, your blood sugar levels stay lower and more stable. Plus processed foods often contain added sugar and salt.
What meat alternatives do you recommend?
There are options that are less processed than some of these plant-based meats. Tofu is one; tempeh is another. Tempeh is fermented soybeans made into a loaf. You can crumble it or slice it up. Unless you’re following a gluten-free diet, seitan is another option; it’s made from wheat gluten. And there are natural foods that are great protein sources. Things like lentils can make a great burger.
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TopicsNutrition Risk Factors
The reality is that something isn’t healthy just because it is plant-based.