Just because a burger is made from plants instead of animals doesn’t automatically make it “healthier” for you, Lydon says. “Compared to a meat-based burger, Beyond and Impossible contain roughly the same amount of saturated fat and more sodium,” she says, both of which, when over-consumed, can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. “In terms of nutrition labels, most of these seem comparable with the meat foods they are trying to replace,” agrees Coupland, referring primarily to the amount of protein, fat, calories, and sodium in both. It’s important, he says, to remember that “the point of comparison is a sausage, not a carrot!”
Another issue with these high-tech fake meats, which Pollan would perhaps argue are more products of science than nature: They’re pretty far removed from the whole foods that our ancestors ate. By isolating ingredients (like that methylcellulose) for their nutritional value or function alone, Zimberoff says we miss out on the good bits that come from eating the entire food source. Take pea protein: It’s chemically extracted from (usually) yellow field peas, but we don’t get any of the magnesium, folate, potassium, or fiber that’s built into the actual pea. Likewise, when oils are refined and deodorized to the form found in many fake meats, they’re also stripped of a bunch of trace elements, which are the minerals present in living tissues. I kind of equate it to drinking Athletic Greens or Emergen-C versus eating a salad or an orange. There’s just some stuff you’re not getting!
I gotta caveat here: health and nutrition are both imperfect sciences and extremely personal. Whether something is “good” for you is entirely up to you. Many people have many opinions about how we should be living our lives, but if you want to eat a veggie burger simply because it is very delicious or you love Mother Earth, you go do that!
Bentley is also quick to explain that not all industrially produced food is bad. In fact, our diets are full of it: boxes of baby spinach, bags of rice, and canned tomatoes are all processed to a degree. “A lot of it is really well made, and frankly, in today’s society, we couldn’t get along without the industrial food supply chain,” she says. “We just need to think about it with more nuance.”
What should I keep in mind when shopping for meat alternatives?
“Ditch the diet mentality,” says Wolfram, “and just have fun exploring different options.” The most important thing is that you enjoy the beefless burgers and chickenless nuggets that you’re eating.
If satiety is important to you, Lydon recommends opting for brands and products that are rich in protein and fiber. And if you’re struggling with high blood pressure, “you may be more interested in choosing an option with lower sodium,” she says. At the end of the day, Lydon is all about dietary variety and intuition, and recommends her clients include various other plant-based proteins in their meals too, like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and legumes.
It’s been over a decade since both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat were founded. Though it might earn me a lecture from my rancher parents, I can say with confidence that both taste great. Truly almost indiscernible from beef, especially when smothered in cheese and ketchup and washed down with a cold beer. In many ways I am their ideal customer because I enjoy the flavors of meat but would prefer to avoid the macabre reality of its production. I’ll never get over the crisp bite of a nugget or the salty-chew of bacon, even if they’re made from some miscellaneous protein isolates and starches. And, as Impossible’s finance dude would probably tell you, I’m not the only one.