Dear Dietitian – Are meatless substitutes healthier than meat?
This past weekend, a friend encouraged me to try a meatless burger. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was delicious and tasted like meat! Are these meatless substitutes healthier than meat?
When it comes to consumer satisfaction, burgers made with meat substitutes taste like meat, look like meat, and have a similar texture. An increased number of consumers are switching to plant-based diets for many reasons, including protecting animals, preserving the environment, and general health concerns. The meatless substitute market earned about $555 million in revenue in 2017 and it’s growing at around 6% per year, according to a report from Nielsen, the good Food Institutes, and the Plant Based Foods Association (1).
Many of these meat alternatives are made of soy which contains isoflavones, a plant estrogen. At one time, this was a concern for increased risk of breast cancer in women. However, research has shown there are not enough isoflavones in whole soy products to increase the risk of breast cancer. Caution should be taken, however, when taking soy supplements or consuming processed soy products, which contain larger amounts of isoflavones (2).
One advantage of a plant-based diet is that it tends to be higher in fiber. A high fiber diet has been associated with lower rates of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and possibly some types of cancer. One disadvantage of choosing meat substitutes is that they cost as much as three to four times more than meat (3). Consumers can dodge this price hike by choosing whole foods, such as beans, lentils, and soy as their protein sources. Another disadvantage is the lack of vitamin B12 in a diet free of meat and animal products. If you choose to go vegan, take a B12 supplement, as its function is vital in nerve function.
Are these meatless alternatives better for you? My mantra is “keep it simple.” The same rules apply for meat substitutes as apply to meat when assessing nutritional value. Is it high in fat? What about saturated fat? What is the sodium level? Is it a good source of protein?
When opting for a meat substitute, choose one made from whole foods. Read the label and look for items made from tofu, beans, vegetables, and quinoa. Choose a product that is seasoned with herbs and spices, and beware of fillers, which add calories but little or no nutrition. A rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce it or if it contains more than four syllables, it may be a filler. Another important practice is to choose a product that is low in saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 13 grams per day. As always, keep sodium levels as low as possible, and protein should be comparable to meat, around 7 grams per ounce.
Finally, remember not all foods that claim to be healthy actually are. It’s the food manufacturer’s job to sell a product. It’s the consumer’s job to select a healthy product. That’s why education is the key.
Until next time, be healthy!
- Settembre, J. (2019, June 15). Tyson, America’s biggest meat producer, is taking a bite out of the vegetarian market. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com
- Zeratsky, K. (2018, Nov. 21) Will eating soy increase my risk of breast cancer? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org
- Hultin, G. (2019) Meat Substitutes. Today’s Dietitian; 21 (6), 18. Retrieved from https://www.todaysdietitian.com