The movement towards plant-based and vegan eating has gained a massive amount of momentum in the last few years. And we are now at the point where there is a plant-based alternative offered at every fast food outpost. Whether it’s the Impossible Whopper at Burger King, the Beyond Sausage Breakfast at Dunkin Donuts, or KFC’s Beyond Meat Fried Chicken, there is no denying the abundance of non-meat alternatives. But does having a plant based alternative actually mean it’s healthier?
What are These Faux Meats?
There are several faux meat companies on the market right now, but topping the list are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. They both make a ‘plant-based’ burger that is supposed to look, act, and taste like real meat. And these two brands have exploded into the fast food world including such bigwigs as Burger King, McDonalds, Qdoba, Dunkin’, Carl’s Jr, White Castle, and Del Taco. So, what are these magical mystery meats? Well they are definitely not plants! The Impossible Burger’s main ingredients are soy leghemoglobin (aka heme) which gives it the meaty color and appearance, coconut oil, sunflower oil, yeast extract (sometimes known as the new MSG!) and modified food starch. The Beyond Burger is primarily made of pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil, rice protein, methylcellulose, and potassium chloride. Each have a long list of ingredients and meet the criteria for an ultra-processed food, which means they are industrial formulations have include flavor enhancers, stabilizers and/or preservatives.
But Plant-Based Means Healthy, Right?
While the term ‘plant-based’ may create a perspective of something being healthier, that is not actually the case here. In the nutrition world, ‘plant-based’ infers the idea of being derived from plants, often meaning from whole foods. But these products definitely don’t fit into that category. Not only are they not whole foods, they really are not any healthier than the meat products that are replacing! Consider this example: A Burger King Whopper has 660 calories, 40g of fat, 12g of saturated fat, and 980 mg of sodium. The Impossible Whopper at Burger King has 630 calories, 34g of fat, 11g of saturated fat, and 1240 mg of sodium. It is very similar but adds in that extra dose of sodium that none of us need!
So, What’s Good About Them?
Well, we know these faux meat alternatives are not lower calorie or lower fat, and certainly not lower sodium. And they aren’t rooted in whole foods. So, is there an upside? Well, you may have to look past the ingredients and the nutrition panel to see the benefits. For starters, there could be a large environmental impact to eating these alternatives. Switching from meat to vegetarian or vegan options can limit some harmful environmental practices like methane emissions stemming from animal agriculture. Plus, it takes approximately 150 gallons of water to produce a quarter pound burger. An Impossible burger claims to use 87% less, so there may be a positive impact on water conservation as well.
But a bigger benefits may be more about perception. What these alternatives do is get people thinking about plant-based foods and embracing the idea of eating this way. As veganism becomes more mainstream, these options help normalize the idea of vegan eating and make it feel attainable- not something that is expensive or high class. These options can be very helpful for individuals who are trying to eat less red meat by making them feel like the change is not as difficult. Anyone considering going vegetarian of vegan often feels overwhelmed by the idea of it and being able to make this quick fast-food substitution could make the transition easier. So, despite not being plants, the maybe be gateway foods to plant-based eating.
What’s The Bottom Line?
The ‘plant based’ meat alternatives that have flooded the fast food world may not be a physically healthier option but they may be more environmentally friendly. If you are considering cutting meat out of your diet, using these burgers during you initial transition may make things feel a little easier and a little more comfortable for you. But if you are already a non-meat eater, stick to eating plants!