Fifty years ago, the idea of creating alternatives to meat was probably not on most people’s radar. Fast forward to today, and both plant-based and lab-grown meat exist. In fact, we now commonly find plant-based meat in both grocery stores and restaurants. Meat alternatives are growing in popularity as more people become focused on reversing chronic diseases and conditions (such as high cholesterol), eliminating animal cruelty, and improving the sustainability of the food supply and environment.
What are meat alternatives?
Meat alternatives are meat substitutes. There are two types—plant-based and lab-grown. Plant-based meats use ingredients extracted from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) of plants, such as soybeans or peas. Lab-grown meat, or cultured meat, is tissue grown from animal cells that has been multiplied and isolated in the lab. These meat alternatives are available in many forms, including burgers, sausages, chicken, and fish.
Both of these types of alternatives were created to mimic the taste, texture, and chemical composition of meat. For example, The Impossible Burger is made with protein from GMO soy, peas, mung beans, rice, beets, and pomegranate (for meat-like redness). The fat comes from canola and coconut oil and cocoa butter. Although plant-based meats are derived from plants, significant processing is required to produce them, and they are filled with additives that are unlike the plants from which they were derived.
Lab-grown meat is created from the stem cells of animals. In the lab, the cells are fed amino acids and carbohydrates where they multiply and grow muscle fibers which look like and have almost the same texture as meat. Lab-grown meats are not available for purchase yet at your local supermarket. These products are going through the Food and Drug Administration approval process.
Are they healthy?
The nutritional content of plant-based meats is almost equivalent to real meat in terms of calories and proteins. But plant-based meat is lower in total saturated fats and cholesterol, and higher in sodium.
Neither plant-based nor lab-grown meats are nutritionally equivalent to meat from animals. According to a new study, lab-grown meat does not “contain sufficient metabolites such as creatine, spermine, anserine, cysteamine, glucosamine, squalene, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA” , which are all found in large amounts in beef and are important for your health. However, lab-grown meat has the benefit of decreased risk of contamination from salmonella, E. Coli and other bacteria. It is important to note that bacteria can still occur in labs where the lab-grown meat is being processed.
Plant-based meat, created by the Impossible Foods company, contains a chemical compound called leghemoglobin which is extracted from the roots of soybean plants. This compound is used to replicate the hemoglobin and heme iron in blood which is normally found in meat. Since the large amount of soy leghemoglobin found in plant-based meat consumption are comparable to the heme iron in red meat, researchers suggest that red meat and plant-based meat consumption may be associated with elevated risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colorectal and lung cancer . However, a new study suggests that plant-based meat may lower some cardiovascular risk factors compared with red meat .
The bottom line
Meat alternatives are highly processed foods that should not be assumed to be healthy diet alternatives. Whether the meats are derived from plant compounds or created in a lab, their nutritional profile differs from true animal meat. Although the health impact may differ between animal-derived meat and meat alternatives, one is not necessarily a “healthier” choice. But, if you want to occasionally replace your burger consumption with a healthier alternative, you might consider making your own veggie, tofu, or black bean burger. Other options may include substituting red meat with lean animal protein sources such as chicken, turkey, fish and beans/legumes.