Plant-Based Red Meat Considerations

You can now find ultra-realistic plant-based hamburgers at national fast-food chains, and soon, realistic replacements for chicken and seafood. These foods offer critical environmental benefits since their production requires up to 99% less water, 46% less energy, and 93% less land than an equal amount of animal-based protein, according to industry-funded research. Still, their swift introduction into the marketplace didn’t give enough time for well-designed scientific studies to assess their impact on our long-term health. As registered dietitians, here’s what we’re considering about the new plant-based red meat alternatives.

Lack of Research

In contrast to diets high in red meat and processed meats, plant-based diets generally reduce the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers. But research that came to these conclusions only considered conventional plant-based diets—ones that rely on high amounts of fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Currently, we don’t have enough information to know if the health benefits associated with plant-based diets extend to the new plant-based meat alternatives. With time, data can be collected that informs us on how to incorporate these into a healthy diet.

Many plant-based alternatives, like store-bought veggie burgers, have ingredients with a long history in our food supply: beans, tofu, lentils, and grains. But one plant burger available at a national fast-food chain contains a brand-new color and flavor additive called soy leghemoglobin, a protein produced by yeast. Soy leghemoglobin releases the same type of heme-iron into the digestive system as animal-based protein and provides the plant-based burger with its meaty flavor and appearance.

Usually, the Food and Drug Administration tests new ingredients for long-term safety before introduction into the food supply. The FDA takes even greater caution when millions of people will consume it. In this case, soy leghemoglobin did not receive long-term safety testing. Instead, the FDA approved the additive after reviewing only short-term safety data submitted by the manufacturer. Since a higher intake of heme iron is associated with developing type 2 diabetes and increased cancer risk, a lack of robust safety data is a concern when you consider how many people might eat these foods regularly.

Level of Processing

Today’s popular red meat alternatives fit the criteria for an ultra-processed food since they contain about twenty different ingredients rarely found in a household kitchen. Rather than being made from whole foods, their primary components are purified plant proteins—either pea protein isolate or soy protein isolate and concentrate. A recent randomized trial where people were fed mostly minimally processed foods or ultra-processed foods found that the ultra-processed diet led to overeating and weight gain. Not to mention, many nutrients found in plant-based foods, like antioxidants and vitamins, are diminished during processing and storage.

Nutrient Content

The new plant-based burgers were designed to match the look and feel of 80/20 ground beef. They happen to share similarities in nutrient profiles, too; the popular plant-based red meat alternatives are similar to 80/20 ground beef in calories and protein.

However, plant-based meat alternatives are much higher in sodium than beef, and Americans already overeat sodium from processed foods and restaurant meals. A four-ounce serving of plant-based red meat has up to 380 mg of sodium compared to 75 mg found in the same amount of ground beef.

Plant-based ground beef also has less total fat but just as much saturated fat as 80/20 ground beef. Saturated fat contributes to heart disease by increasing LDL cholesterol, which can contribute to atherosclerosis. Although this saturated fat comes from plant-based coconut and palm oil, it’s currently recommended to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats to reduce the chance of heart attacks and stroke.

Unlike red meat, plant-based meats have a small number of complex carbohydrates and fiber. It’s unlikely that the three grams of fiber in four ounces of plant-based beef will make a meaningful impact on your overall fiber intake.

Context in the Diet

Consider the types of foods that accompany a typical burger meal. Maybe there’s a refined grain bun, French fries, ketchup, and sugary drinks. Only switching from an animal-based patty to plant-based patty won’t add up to improved meal quality. If you’re thinking about including one of the new plant-based meat replacements in a meal, use it in the same way you’d use beef. Keep things balanced and nutrient-dense by adding a whole grain and a generous portion of vegetables to the meal.

Not all plant-based meat alternatives are created equally! Some ditch highly processed ingredients and opt for whole-food ingredients. Stick with products that have ingredients you recognize and would typically keep in your kitchen. Short ingredient lists that start with beans, tofu, vegetables, and whole grains are your best bet and usually indicate higher fiber, vitamin, and mineral content and less processing. Next, check the nutrition label for saturated fat and sodium with respect to the rest of your day’s food choices. Make sure your whole-food-based veggie burger has some protein if you’re using it to replace meat.

Alternatively, you can make nutrient-dense veggie burgers with inexpensive canned beans, whole grains, and spices. Top with lots of veggies and serve on a whole-grain hamburger bun!


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