Plant-Based Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy – Especially When It Comes to Vegan “Meat”

Buddha Bowls

Some plant-based foods are high in calories and sodium content.

It hasn’t been that long since the new year started and people are still thinking about their resolutions and goals for 2022. Many opt for getting healthy, cutting out drinking, or starting a new hobby. Vegan magazines and organizations are pushing plant-based diets — calling it the “ultimate new year’s resolution.”

But plant-based meats are often high in sodium, ultra-processed, and not any healthier than the meat they imitate. Meanwhile, nearly half of the consumers think they are more nutritious. So if your resolution is related to health, you may want to reconsider switching to a plant-based diet if it involves plant-based meat.

The Impossible Burger, for example, is an impressive meat-free mix of soy, potato proteins, coconut, and sunflower oils. It even bleeds like the real thing. At the same time its calorie count and saturated fat levels mirror a McDonald’s quarter-pounder patty, and it has six times more sodium.

The global market for plant-based meat is projected to explode to US$85 billion in 2030. And grocery stores are taking note, featuring an array of burgers, sausages, nuggets, ground meat and seafood options all without any trace of animal products.

What’s the nutritional benefit?

According to one recent study, the nutritional benefit of plant-based foods is minimal. Researchers from the Singapore Institute for Food and Biotechnology Innovation modelled the outcome of replacing bacon, chicken, beef burgers, and ice cream with animal-free versions.

Diets that substituted animal products with the plant-based alternative were below the daily recommendations for vitamin B12, calcium, potassium, zinc and magnesium, and higher in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.


Simply focusing on protein is insufficient.

Even with added vitamins and minerals, these products are not nutritionally interchangeable, says Stephan van Vliet, a postdoctoral associate at the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute. “Meat made from plants isn’t meat made from cows and meat made from cows isn’t meat made from plants,” he says.

Animal sources like meat, milk, and eggs are complete proteins, meaning they contain enough of the nine essential amino acids we must get from our diets every day. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains often lack one or more of these amino acids and need to be eaten in combination.

Plant-based meat manufacturers argue their products contain similar amounts of protein that are comparable in quality to animal protein. But focusing on protein is too “simplistic,” says van Vliet. “Foods contain hundreds to thousands of compounds that are capable of impacting human metabolism and health.”

Van Vliet and colleagues compared 190 molecules in plant-based meat alternatives with grass-fed ground beef and found that 90 percent of them were different. Plant-based meat alternatives lacked certain amino acids and derivatives, like creatine, taurine, and anserine, “which can all have an impact on our health and potentially brain function as well as muscle function,” he says.

Other metabolites like polyphenols and antioxidants were found in greater quantities or exclusively in plant-based meats. He sees plant and animal source foods as complementary in our diet, where some nutrients are better obtained from animal sources and others from plants.

The term plant-based

“People opt for a plant-based burger for a variety of reasons,” says Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based consulting dietitian, “including reducing meat intake.” But she argues that consumers should rethink their reasoning if it’s because of health.

“To substitute something plant-based as a substitute because it’s called plant-based is really steering us in the wrong direction,” says Schwartz.

Woman Cooking Vegetables

If you’re opting for plant-based because of health, you should probably reconsider.

According to nutrition scientists and Canada’s Food Guide, plant-based is the recommended way we should be eating. Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits, and the other half with whole grains and proteins.

But “plant-based” also refers to anything from meat to paint to pillowcases, as long as they were made mostly or completely of plants, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Just because it’s made from plants, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. “I do think it’s very confusing for the consumer,” says van Vliet. “It’s probably not the chicken, but everything else that comes with the chicken nugget that is probably detrimental to our health.”

The future of plant-based meats

Up until this point, plant-based meat companies focused on the taste, texture, and appearance of their products. These companies targeted meat eaters by creating plant-based marvels meant to look, taste and feel like the real thing.

Impossible Foods, the creator of the Impossible Burger, says 90 percent of their customers are still meat-eaters. It isn’t in the business of converting salad and tempeh-eating veggie lovers into fake meat consumers.

“The whole mission of Impossible Foods is to create plant-based products that compete directly against animal meat,” said Esther Cohn, communications manager at Impossible Foods. “If you eat five beef burgers a week, we want you to swap, even just try swapping one out for an Impossible Burger.”

With a booming market and new animal-free proteins made from cells in a lab or fungi in fermentation tanks, the options are endless. Can they be adapted to be healthier as well? We’ll have to wait and see.

Written by Meghan McGee, Nutrition Scientist, Dalla Lana Fellow, University of Toronto.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

11 Comments on "Plant-Based Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy – Especially When It Comes to Vegan “Meat”"

  1. Meghan McGee, while I have no knowledge of her I think a statement that neither her nor her family have any connection with meat production in any way whatsoever. This article is so pro meat as to be propaganda. Just my thoughts and I would like her to prove me wrong.

  2. This article while makes some good points the idea that, “the worst thing about chicken nuggets isn’t the chicken” is a hard statement to get behind. The worst thing about meat is meat. Unless you hunted the game yourself, even with “grass-fed” meat, it is a grab bag of chemical compounds and antibiotics you’re ingesting. At least with plant based meats, we can be almost sure that the compounds found in it aren’t similar to the antibiotics and hormones which are found in almost all meat products. If you have to choose between plant based chicken and real chicken, always choose plant based if allergies aren’t an issue. Massive chicken farms are one of the main concerns of scientists because it increases the chances of different avian like flus jumping to humans. There are so many benefits to choosing plant based foods other than just the amino acid make up. Focusing on the amino acid profile of plant based products is such a narrow metric to base your conclusions on.

    • “even with “grass-fed” meat, it is a grab bag of chemical compounds and antibiotics you’re ingesting.” What?? No. First of chicken isn’t “grass-fed” it’s “pasture-raised.” And where exactly did the “chemicals and antibiotics” come from in organically raised meats? You are incorrect. I know my farmers and they do not use hormones, drugs, or any chemicals in the raising of their animals. So please stop spreading misinformation just to further your own agenda. It’s not a good look to lie and then claim the moral high ground.

  3. The standard American diet (SAD) has led to high rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. With a healthy plant-based diet, you will enjoy a normal BMI and fewer of the above afflictions. Vegan meat is considered junk food, and should only be enjoyed on occasion. Others use it to transition to a plant-based diet. The idea that a plant-based diet lacks complete protein is nonsense.

  4. How refreshing, the 573rd article telling us processed plant-based meats aren’t healthy. News flash, unless your burger is a living cow between two buns, your real meat is processed too. And red meat is a carcinogen. The last I checked, pea protein isn’t. Screw your big Ag-influenced opinion pieces. Just copy and paste over and over until every news outlet and “news” outlet around the world has published the pro-meat propaganda.

  5. I wonder how Bill Gate’s synthetic meat places since this article’s content is calling out the negative attributes of so called “vegan meats”?

  6. If you actually read the study she references it states “With the exception of the traditional vegan diet, all diets with traditional plant-based substitutes met daily requirements for calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, iron and Vitamin B12 and were lower in saturated fat, sodium and sugar than the reference diet. Diets based on novel plant-based substitutes were below daily requirements for calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and Vitamin B12 and exceeded the reference diet for saturated fat”
    The point is too much processed food is, of course,not good for you but not a reason not to go plant based because if you do it correctly you don’t need to depend on those products. Most vegan cookbooks don’t even include them in recipes because there are so many other healthy options.

  7. For most people, more salt in their diet is not harmful. Unless you suffer from hypertension go crazy. Processed sugars on the other hand is everyone’s enemy. Amoung other things it has the same effect on your liver as alcohol and can cause type 2 diabetes.

    But for animal meet in general the highest risk is from the hormones. U would take a beyond meat patty over a beef patty anyway. Of course something like a blackbean patty is better. But those are hard to find on the go.

  8. Please actually do research before spouting this nonsense about needing to eat meat. I’m sure many industries will do their best to pollute a Whole Food Plant Based Diet, just to keep the meat & dairy propaganda going.

    If you want to die of our current common killers, then keep eating the standard american meat, fish, eggs & dairy diet.

  9. Christine Helms | January 24, 2022 at 3:55 pm | Reply

    I think there is too much propaganda in this article. Plant based is good fir animals, people, and the planet. Since going vegan my blood work is excellent

  10. It is a nonsense meat propaganda!

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