What’s the deal with meatless meat?

You asked: What’s the deal with meatless meat?

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Have you heard the scoop? Has meat met its match? A couple of companies have been taking plant-based “meat” products to the next level, turning these toppings into the main show. The recent collaboration of Impossible Foods with Burger King and Qdoba to make menu offerings with the Impossible version on meatless meat now followed by the IPO of Beyond Meat in May 2019 have brought this topic into the spotlight. You might say that all the April showers have brought these May flowers into bloom, allowing these plant-based meat replicas to grow to fruition… pun intended.

Before we delve into the health aspects of these products, it’s important to realize what role these food items have in our menu options. Plant-based protein alternatives have been around for a long time with tofu, textured vegetable protein, bean-based products, and more. What’s different about these is that they actually try to simulate the taste and texture of red meat. Impossible foods says they’re able to accomplish this through genetically modified yeast that produce a protein abundant in red meat called heme. The form of heme that their yeast produce is actually a soy-based version of the protein that they claim still has they beefy taste. They pair this up with plant-based proteins, oils, and some other ingredients to simulate the texture and feel of real meat. Beyond meat takes a slightly different approach claiming to not use any genetically modified organisms, but rather using pea protein as their primary ingredient. Both of these producers are looking to fill the role of being meat alternatives for people who can’t do without the thought of going without meat… but will.

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Aside from environmental benefits of eating less red meat, there are many health benefits, most of which boil down to better heart health. Research has shown that eating 1 additional serving of red meat per day results in a 16% increase in the risk of dying from heart disease. Conversely, the same study showed that eating less than ½ a serving of red meat per day could lower the risk of dying from heart disease by about 8% in men and 12% in women. There are several theories as to why this might be. Many things that we eat affect aspects of our cardiovascular health, such as fat, salt, and sugar. Red meat contains varying amounts of saturated fat, which can certainly affect cholesterol, a typical risk factor for heart disease. More indirectly, some research shows that bacteria in our guts are made up of different types based on what our diets are. Some of these bacteria produce something called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in response to digesting red meat, which is associated with higher risk of heart disease.

So what about these meatless meat options, or red-ish meat, or whatever you’d like to call it. Are they actually healthier? Pound per pound, or ounce per ounce, here are some nutrition facts for each that are important for heart health:

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What this means for you is that if you need to have a burger, but you don’t care whether it’s actually meat or a virtual reality version of it, the imitators are higher calorie, saltier, fattier, “carbier” versions of the real thing (assuming you’re eating a 90% lean/10% fat blend of ground beef). The benefits are that you’re getting fiber from the plant base of the faux-burgers and presumably avoiding the potentially dangerous digestive products of actual red meat that may cause issues down the line.

This brings up a key point though:

just because something is vegetarian or vegan doesn’t make it healthy!

When you make decisions about your food, healthy foods, like their unhealthy counterparts, come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. If avoiding real meat for ethical or environmental reasons is your main concern, by all means, these newer options are great alternatives that may satisfy your cravings without leaving you with guilt. If looking for a healthier alternative to red meat though, it’s not clear that these products will “meat” your expectations.

Bon appetit!

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