Plant-based burgers have come a long way – the newest versions look, taste, and sizzle like the real deal. The same goes for the latest meatless versions of ground “meat”, sausage, and chicken nuggets. They’re convincing swaps, but are they truly better for you? It’s not as clear-cut as it seems.
Because these products are so carefully engineered to mimic meat and poultry, the ingredient list is usually lengthy and ends up reading more like something from a food lab than your home kitchen. The main ingredient is typically protein isolate, made by extracting protein from crops like soybeans or peas. Oils like coconut make them juicy. Thickeners like methylcellulose hold them together. Plant juices and extracts including beet and paprika give faux beef and pork a rich, meat-like color.
The result is something that would qualify as ultra-processed – perfectly fine occasionally, but ideally not an everyday staple, since some research shows that ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of cancer and early death. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research, which recommends eating mostly whole and minimally processed foods to reduce cancer risk, suggests the same portion limits for these meatless products as they have for red meat: no more than 12-18 ounces a week (that’s roughly 4-6 servings per week, with one meat-free sausage or four meat-free nuggets each counting as a serving).
Meat-free products do have some advantages, though. They’re rich sources of protein without any of the cholesterol present in meat (and some of them contain fiber). They’re a more sustainable choice over meat and poultry, and because they’re such believable trades and slide effortlessly into recipes for things like tacos and spaghetti and “meat”balls, they make it pretty easy for carnivores to go meatless more often.
But it’s still important to look at stats and read labels. Thanks to the oil used to create juiciness, some (but not all) of these mock meats can be high in saturated fat – though it’s not clear whether the saturated fat from oils like coconut have a negative impact on heart health. Some are also high in sodium. The Impossible Whopper at Burger King has similar saturated fat and calories (and more sodium) than their regular Whopper, but Raised and Roots faux chicken nuggets have a third less saturated fat than standard nuggets. In general, try to pick products with shorter, simpler ingredient lists, and treat them as you would any packaged, processed food.
One mock meat you shouldn’t limit: Your own veggie burgers made with foods like rice, beans, lentils, and mushrooms. You’ll get all the health benefits of the whole foods and no extra additives. And if you grab your ingredients with reusable bags from the bulk bins, it’s a lot better for the environment compared to processed patties and nuggets packaged in in plastic and cardboard too!