Meatless Meats: Are They Really a Healthier Option?

Katy Macqueen, MS, RD, LDN, CDOE
Meatless Burgers

Nutrition is a critical part of a healthy life. What we eat directly impacts our overall health and wellness.

The push for more nutritious options has moved into the fast food chains. To stay competitive and meet the demands of a public that is becoming more health conscious, food producers have developed a new entry into the fast food market – the “meatless” burger. This plant-based, highly processed option may sound like a better choice for some, but it’s always important to understand what you’re eating.

So let’s delve into the truth about these new options so you can choose whether they’re right for you.

Comparing brands and ingredients

Beyond Meat

The Beyond Meat brand offers several products: burgers, ground beef, sausage and crumbles.

Where to find it:

  • Many restaurants
  • Grocery store
  • Fast food chains: McDonald’s PLT “Plant. Lettuce. Tomato.” Beyond Meat Patty – Canada only right now; Subway Beyond Meatball Marinara; Dunkin' Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich

The ingredients:

The main protein source in Beyond Meat is pea protein isolate.  The other ingredients are Water, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color).

Impossible Burger

The Impossible Burger claims to offer the same flavor and aroma of ground beef, but from plants!

Where to find it:

  • Many restaurants
  • Just entering Wegman’s grocery store, not readily available in stores
  • Fast food chains: BURGER KING - Impossible WHOPPER; Qdoba  - ground Impossible meat for burrito or bowl; Red Robin - the Impossible Cheeseburger or burger

The Ingredients:

The Impossible Burger’s main protein source is a soy protein concentrate. The other ingredients are: Water, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

Comparing meatless to meat

CALORIES SATURATED fAT (GM) SODIUM (MG) FIBER (GM) PROTEIN (GM)
Beyond Burger 250 6 360 2 20
Impossible Burger 240 8 370 3 19
Beef Patty (80% Lean/20% Fat) 287 8.5 75 0 19
Beef Patty (90% Lean/10% Fat) 199 4 75 0 23
Turkey Patty (85% Lean/15% Fat) 203 4 61 0 19
Turkey Patty (93% Lean/7% Fat) 170 2.5 78 0 21
CALORIES SATURATED fAT (GM) SODIUM (MG) FIBER (GM) PROTEIN (GM)
Beyond Sausage 190 5 500 3 16
Johnsonville Fresh Italian Mild Sausage 260 8 570 0 14
Al Fresco Fresh Sweet Italian Style Chicken Sausage 110 1.5 500 0 12

What to consider:

The comparison of meatless options to animal meat shows the following:

  • Protein amounts are comparable between meatless meat products and animal meat
  • Saturated fat of the meatless burgers can be the same, less, or more, depending on which level of fat chosen in animal meat
  • Lowering your saturated fat intake is the best intervention for controlling cholesterol (LCL) levels. Choosing the meatless options will not lower your cholesterol because these options still contain saturated fat, mostly from added coconut oil.
  • The sodium content is significantly higher in both meatless options. This can be a concern for those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease or a family history of these. There is 360 to 370 milligrams of sodium in the Beyond Meat and Impossible burgers, respectively. The general guidelines for healthy adults is less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Having a meatless burger combined with cheese and a bun adds up to a very high sodium meal.
  • In terms of calories, only one meat burger has more than either of the meatless options – that is the 80% lean/20% fat beef patty.

Meatless pros and cons

Pros:
  • more sustainable for environment
  • no animals killed
  • suitable for vegetarian or vegan eating preference
  • more fiber
  • in substitution of red meat may have health benefit since red meat is linked to colon cancer
Cons:
  • processed food, unknown health implication
  • the ingredient list (Impossible Burger specifically criticized for GMO soy)
  • higher in sodium than fresh animal meat (almost 300 mg more sodium per burger than fresh meat)
  • does not replace salad or eating of whole vegetables

Overall, from a nutritional standpoint, the meatless options are neither a “health food” nor a “bad food.” I recommend eating these products in moderation, and the same for red meat..  

Meatless burgers are a suitable substitute for animal meat if your overall sodium intake is below the recommended limit for the day.  Put your meatless burger on top of a salad or in a lettuce wrap to avoid added sodium found in burger buns and cheese. Keep in mind that eating a plant-based burger does not mean you then have free rein to eat foods with poor nutritional quality. Overall diet pattern is most important. Meatless burgers can fit into the context of a healthful eating plan, but eating a meatless burger does not guarantee you are “eating healthy” if the rest of your food choices are questionable.  

It is important to keep the big picture in mind!  A meatless burger paired with a large fry and a Coke is still not the best choice, and neither is a real meat burger.  Take a look at your weekly eating habits and see how these new burgers can fit in, if this is of interest to you. If you want to help the environment or feel better not eating animals, choose the meatless meat option.  If these are not priorities for you, opt for the taste you prefer.

Some final tips for healthful eating:

  • When choosing red meat, look for the leanest options. 
  • When eating meatless meat, watch out for your sodium intake the rest of the day. 
  • Be sure to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet every day.
  • Both red meat AND meatless processed plant-based meats should be consumed in moderation only.

For more nutrition tips and information, visit the Nourishing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

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