With so many people exploring new eating habits (think flexitarian and Mediterranean diets), you might have heard or read about the benefits of plant-based meats. But what are plant-based meats? And why are they showing up on more plates these days?
Let’s start with why. Some people don’t eat meat for moral or religious reasons, and others are concerned about the meat industry’s impact on the environment. Plus, many people simply want to adopt a healthier lifestyle—for good reason. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that obesity prevalence increased from 30.5% to 42.4% from 1999 to 2018. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, six in 10 U.S. adults live with chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes—all associated with obesity. One of the key lifestyle risks for chronic disease? Poor nutrition.
In an effort to eat better, many people turn to healthier food alternatives, such as ditching soda for water and snacking on fruit instead of potato chips. People want to still experience delicious food, but with a better nutrition profile—less fat, less sodium, less sugar, and more vitamins and minerals. Enter the plant-based meat phenomenon.
Exactly what is plant-based meat made out of? While ingredients vary, manufacturers create plant-based meats from a variety of real plants. Common ingredients in plant-based meats include:
- Beans and legumes
- Herbs and spices
- Seitan (a.k.a. wheat gluten)
- Soy and soy derivatives (texturized vegetable protein, tofu, tempeh)
- Yeast and yeast extract
Food companies craft the products to look, taste and feel like real meat, whether that’s a juicy hamburger or a tender chicken nugget. To mimic these sensory pleasures, companies might also add other plant-based ingredients, such as:
- Natural pigments and flavors (apple extract, beet juice, carrots)
- Oils (canola, coconut)
- Binding agents (nuts, seeds, vegetables)
Together, this mélange of ingredients creates plant-based meats that come in all shapes and sizes. At the grocery store, you’ll find faux beef, pork and poultry products from brands such as Beyond Meat, Gardein, Impossible Burger, Lightlife, MorningStar Farms, Ozo, Quorn, Raised & Rooted, Simple Truth and Tofurky.
Are plant-based meats healthier? Yes, generally speaking, plant-based meats provide a healthier choice compared to animal meat. It depends on the brand, of course, but plant-based meats often contain less saturated fat, more fiber, and equivalent or more protein. However, they often contain higher levels of sodium. Regardless of what brand you purchase, make sure you read the food label to check for low amounts of fat, sodium and calories.