The Truth Behind Plant-Based Meat: Is it a ‘Healthy’ Option?

People are opting for plant-based meat for health and environmental concerns. But is it offering any benefit?

Updated21 Jan 2020, 12:59 PM IST
Chew On This
5 min read

If your brain automatically tings *healthy* when you hear the term ‘plant-based’, you’re not alone.

At a time when health and climate awareness is at its peak around the world, people are consciously looking for ‘healthier’ and ‘environment-friendly’ alternatives. The US award shows have made a statement by serving vegan steaks and burgers in most ceremonies. Catering to these more informed demands, US-based companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have created plant-based meat products which, by their claim, ‘look, cook and satisfy’ like meat, without the risks associated with the latter.

But does this ‘minimised’ risk make these substitutes healthy? In fact, to what extent has the risk really been minimised? And does this mean we can gorge on these burgers guilt-free?

Tasty, Healthy & Nutritious Burgers: Too Good to Be True?

Let’s start with some positives. The meatless variety available in the market includes protein sources, vitamin B12, and zinc in quantities as high as found in beef or poultry products — which is a selling point for vegetarians who may be struggling to find these in their diets. In addition, they include more fiber and have zero cholesterol.

It all boils down to two questions: These ‘benefits’ come at what cost? Would this guarantee a healthy burger?

"That’s highly unlikely," says Preeti Rao, Integrative Health and Wellness Expert at Max Multi Speciality Centre, Panchsheel Park.

“Any ‘imitation’ would have to be looked at with an eye of suspicion. Food that is an imitation would be highly processed and loaded with sodium.”
Preeti Rao

In fact, as per the data by Harvard Health, the sodium amount in these meatless burgers is nearly four times that of the meat burgers. Celebrity nutritionist and author Kavita Devgan says, “Any food that is high in sodium and saturated fat will be bad for your health, whether the source is meat or a meat alternative. So just because something is vegetarian, it cannot be branded as healthy.”

The Truth Behind Plant-Based Meat: Is it a ‘Healthy’ Option?
(Photo: Harvard Health)

The protein component of these burgers comes from peas or soy, but the nutrition that these ingredients would provide individually, ceases to exist in the dish. In conversation with FIT, Sandhya Pandey, Chief Clinical Nutritionist at Fortis Gurugram, explains why this happens. “The more you expose food to processing, the more nutrition loss it will go through.”

“Any food in itself is not good or bad. It is about how it has been prepared. Plant-based meat burgers include excess salt, colourings, extracts, preservatives, and are highly processed.”
Sandhya Pandey

A study by the National Institute of Health, USA, found that people eating ultra-processed foods ate more calories and gained more weight than when they ate a minimally processed diet, and this occurred even though the meals provided to the volunteers in both the ultra-processed and minimally processed diets had the same number of calories and macronutrients.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation defines ultra-processed foods as those that “go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated.”

In simple terms, when an animal or a plant cell is broken down, its original biological composition is stripped off. Refined food is deprived of the components that earlier existed in the food to slow down digestion. When this dish is now consumed, the body uses up all energy from it much quicker. This can in turn spike people’s insulin levels — a trend that is especially dangerous in a country like India, which is the diabetes capital of the world.

However, these burgers do claim to offer some exclusive benefits over their counterparts — by mitigating the cancer risks associated with red meat and by excluding growth hormones and antibiotics which are given to animals.

But again, this does not make the other problems any less severe.

Delnaaz T Chanduwadia, Chief Dietitian at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, agrees with the other nutritionists on this.

“The risk of cancer from red meat is avoided, but the burger lacks any sort of macro or micronutrients. In fact, it is so highly processed that it would lose out on most nutrients that are otherwise present in these veg sources.”
Delnaaz T Chanduwadia

But It’s Great for the Environment — or Is It?

Would you believe these burgers are vegan? 
Would you believe these burgers are vegan? 
(Photo: iStock)

There are multiple reasons why people want to move away from meat, and plant-based meat producers are trying to tap into these.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. Cattle (raised for beef and milk) alone produce 65 percent of livestock emissions.

On its website, Beyond Meat quotes a study to claim that their burger uses significantly less water, land, energy, and generates fewer Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGE) than a beef burger. To be specific:

  • 99 percent less water
  • 93 percent less land
  • 90 percent fewer GHGE
  • 46 percent less energy

Similar statistics exist for other plant-based meat companies, and most of these studies have been commissioned by these very producers.

Now here’s the catch.

According to an NBC report, these substitutes don’t offer the best emissions solution. It says,

“Cellular-based meat alternatives release five times the emissions as chicken, putting their emissions just under beef. Plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as chicken, which are about five times the emissions of legumes and vegetables.”

In another report, Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, says, “While their processed products have about half the carbon footprint that chicken does, they also have 5 times more of a footprint than a bean patty. So Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it’s the most climate-friendly thing to do — that’s a false promise.”

While both reports are conflicting in terms of carbon footprint of plant-based meats vs chicken, they do point out how these burgers are not exactly an 'environmentally healthy' option.

Environmentally speaking, plant-based meat is better than beef, but it’s still nowhere as safe as vegetables.

And that basically sums it up. If meatless burgers are being opted for their health benefits, then the results will definitely be disappointing. These burgers, by virtue of being ‘indulgent’ fast foods, are not healthy. While they do away with certain harms that consuming meat may cause, they present some other risks that are as, if not more severe. Even in terms of the environment, more independent research is needed to claim that shifting to them is worthwhile.

As Delnaaz T Chanduwadia puts it, if environment and health are your concerns, and if you choose to not eat meat, then shifting to a balanced and nutritious meal of vegetables, grains, and fruit is the only way to go to.

“Such a meal will render its fair share of vitamins and minerals, as against a food item that is so overtly processed that it offers minimal to almost zero benefits.”

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Published: 21 Jan 2020, 11:57 AM IST

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