Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy? Here’s How to Know
If you’re interested in including more plant-based foods in your cooking (or transitioning to a vegan diet), you might be curious about meat alternatives. Grocery stores have more meat substitutes to choose from than ever before, which doesn’t always mean it’s easy picking the best ones for you and your family. Perhaps you’re asking yourself, “Is plant-based meat healthy?”
In this article, we’ll talk a bit about what plant-based meat is made from, whether or not it's better for you, and what to look for on product labels so you can find a meat alternative that works for you. Let’s jump in!
What Is Plant-Based Meat Made From?
Even if it seems like impressive meat substitutes are entering the marketplace every day, they aren’t a new development. Meat alternatives have been popular since the 1960s, and Asian cultures have feasted on tofu and tempeh for hundreds of years. So, what’s changed?
There’s a whole wide world of plant-based meat to explore, for starters. A veggie burger patty has come a long way from only being made from nuts, seeds, whole grains, lentils, and other legumes. And while those plant-based meat substitutes are delicious in their own right, rarely are they ever confused for the real thing.
But not anymore. From your dinner table to fast-food restaurants, meat substitutes are easier to find, tastier than ever, and can be part of a meal that satisfies similar to animal products. Here are some of the plant-based meat alternatives you may see online or on your grocer’s shelves:
- Tempeh: One of the oldest plant-based meat substitutes, tempeh is made from fermented soybeans (making them more digestible). It’s a good replacement for ground meat and will take on the flavor of what it’s cooked with.
- Seitan: Seitan is another meat alternative that’s been around for hundreds of years and is made by rinsing the starch from wheat dough. You might also see it labeled as wheat protein or wheat gluten.
- Tofu: Like tempeh, tofu will take on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with and is made from soybeans. You can even use it to make ice cream.
- Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes: These whole food ingredients are high in protein, fiber, and other nutrients. You may see them listed on product labels for veggie burgers and “meat” or nut loaves.
- Jackfruit: A unique meat alternative, jackfruit is the largest fruit that comes from a tree, and its shredded texture is very similar to real meat. It may even trick even the pickiest carnivore at your table, depending on the dish.
- Pea Protein: Pea protein is another base for plant-based meat with a consistency very close to ground beef and even the fibrous texture of real chicken. (Perfect for chicken nuggets!) Pea protein is high in protein and an excellent gluten-free option.
Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?
You’ve probably heard a lot about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, but does this extend to plant-based meat? Is plant-based meat healthy?
It really depends on what your meat substitute is made from. Choosing a meat alternative made with ingredients from whole foods and healthy fats such as coconut oil are wholesome alternatives to regular meat products.
A variety of whole foods and plant proteins can give you an array of nutrients (think calcium, potassium, iron, and more) and boost your fiber intake. Some meat substitutes even have the same protein and iron content as regular meat, minus the saturated fat. Animal-, planet-, and heart-friendly? That’s a hat trick worth going for.
On the other hand, meatless alternatives can be deceiving if you aren’t diligent about giving ingredient lists a once-over before you buy. They can be filled with questionable ingredients (more on those soon). And it’s not uncommon for them to have very high sodium content — pretty much the opposite of what you want if you’re hoping to prevent cardiovascular disease.
Even if your focus is on overall wellness and not heart disease prevention, some plant-based meats may be so highly processed they can hardly be considered a healthier option than red meat or other animal meat. If you’re unsure of how to incorporate plant-based meats into your meal, don’t hesitate to consult a dietitian.
Choosing a Nutritious Plant-Based Meat Alternative
We’ve covered some pitfalls of plant-based meat substitutes, now let’s talk about what to watch for when shopping for these products. Once you know how to evaluate an ingredient list, you won’t have to keep wondering, “Is plant-based meat healthy?” You’ll be ready to make the best choice for you and your family every time you shop.
Look Out for Questionable Additives
While there are plenty of plant-based meat options available, some are better for you than others, so you’ll want to go a step further than reading the nutrition facts. Sometimes there’s more lurking in a potential meal than just added sugars and high sodium (which take away overall nutritional value).
Keep your eyes open for some of these common food additives:
- Methylcellulose: In food, methylcellulose acts as a thickener and stabilizer in foods as it absorbs water (much like xanthan gum). While you don’t have to worry about this effect taking place in your body, methylcellulose is an ingredient typically found in bulk-forming laxatives. Yikes!
- Propylene Glycol: A man-made ingredient commonly seen in salad dressing, frosting, drink mixes, and more, propylene glycol helps dissolve certain substances more efficiently than water. It doesn’t have a direct benefit to your body.
- Titanium Dioxide: This ingredient is typically used as a color additive — you might recognize it from your vitamin bottle, toothpaste, or even in paint you pick up from the hardware store — it also protects a product from degradation. Animal studies demonstrate inhalation of titanium dioxide can be a health risk, though it is generally recognized as safe.
Focus on Ingredient Integrity
Another way to avoid unwanted ingredients is to look for assurances of ingredient quality, but what do those look like?
Start by looking for foods labeled as non-GMO or organic. A non-GMO label means something isn’t a genetically modified organism or made with bioengineered ingredients. This is especially important with heavily modified crops such as corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. If avoiding genetically modified ingredients is a priority for you, next time you’re looking at a soy protein-based meat substitute, look for a non-GMO label.
A better option is to choose certified organic foods or those made with organic ingredients. Organic farming practices prohibit the use of genetically modified ingredients and minimize their use throughout the harvesting and production process.
Psst: Nowadays nuggets are made with high-quality, organic, non-GMO pea protein and are 100% plant-based. They’re made with just 7 simple and easy-to-recognize ingredients. Plus, with 13 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and essential nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and iron, you can feel good about enjoying Nowadays from morning ‘til night.
Plant-Based Meats Can Be a Wholesome Option for You and Your Family
So, is plant-based meat healthy? While it depends on which meat alternative you choose, enjoying more plant-forward meals with a meat substitute is more than possible. Gone are the days of “fake meat.” Now you can look forward to a truly delicious meal.
Whether you include them occasionally or make them a regular staple of your mealtimes, high-quality, plant-based meat can give you and your family a boost of nutrients—and a satisfied tummy to boot! For recipe ideas and more tips for plant-based living, check out our Crave Better Blog.