Are Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Actually Good for Me?

Veggie lovers, fast-food chains and even hardcore carnivores have jumped on board, but there's still one question on everyone's mind: are plant-based alternative foods even good for you? As a response to consumer demands, food companies have started producing and mass marketing many plant-based foods. The most popular example is, of course, the Impossible Burger, which is sold at Burger King and other food establishments. However, burgers aren't the only animal foods that have been popping up on the market. You can now find plant-based tuna, shrimp, eggs, cold cuts, sausages and more!

But the question remains: Is replacing your favorite ground beef burger with an Impossible Burger or opting for plant-based eggs the healthier choice?

Defining Plant-Based

There is no formal definition for the term "plant-based" and the term has come to mean different things to different people. Some interpret "plant-based" as being 100 percent vegan, while others believe it's inclusive of small amounts of animal foods. Research shows that eating a vegan diet is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. However, according to a 2016 nationwide poll, only about 3.3 percent of American adults are vegetarian or vegan, with approximately 46 percent of vegetarians being vegan.

Does this mean animal foods aren't healthy? Absolutely not. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines of Americans showcases three eating patterns that are all healthy: a U.S-style eating pattern, vegetarian and Mediterranean. Each of these patterns includes animal foods (the vegetarian eating pattern contains dairy and eggs). The reason animal foods are included is because they contribute nutrients and help compliment those found in plant-based foods which our bodies need.

With the rise of plant-based eating, though, there has been an increased demand for more plant-based options. As such, food manufacturers have been meeting demands by producing many plant-based alternatives for people looking for items that satisfy their meat cravings and nutrition needs. But just how do these plant-based alternatives stack up against their animal-based counterparts?

1. Burgers

Currently, the two most popular plant-based burger companies are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. You can find Impossible Foods at food establishments like Burger King, White Castle, Applebee's Grill and Bar, and Bareburger, as well as in grocery stores around the country. Both companies specialize in products that look, taste and deliver nutrients just like meat—but with a recipe that is plant-focused. Impossible Foods ground meat, for example, is made from a soy protein concentrate. The company also created a plant-based heme (also known as the molecule that gives blood its red color) through fermentation of genetically engineered yeast that helps create the feel of beef so that the it "bleeds" like the real deal.

The protein in Impossible Burgers comes from soy and potatoes, while the fat is from coconut and sunflower oils; Beyond Burger's protein is made with pea protein, rice protein and mung bean protein and its fat is from expeller-pressed canola oil and refined coconut oil. Both contain methylcellulose, which is used as a binder.

Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have a similar nutrient profile to that of lean beef, except it is higher in sodium. Consumers should also consider the fact that the plant-based burgers contain a multitude of ingredients compared to cow's meat, and are highly processed.   

2. Tuna

A company called Loma Linda sells a plant-based tuna alternative called Tuno, a (you guessed it) tuna alternative. Intended to cut back on overfishing of the fish, Tuno is made from textured soy protein and claims to have a similar taste and texture to tuna. For two ounces of Tuno packed in water you'll be consuming 40 calories and seven grams of protein, along with between eight to 20 percent less sodium compared to other fish products. The same two ounces of the real deal contains 67 calories and twice as much protein. The plant-based tuna also has a touch of fiber, about two grams per two ounce serving while tuna has none.

For pescatarians, genuine tuna is an excellent source of protein, niacin, vitamin B12 and selenium, and a good source of vitamin B6 and phosphorus. Both options are also a good source of omega-3 fats, which have been shown to play a role in heart, brain and eye health, according to a press release from Loma Linda's parent company Atlantic Natural Foods, LLC.

3. Eggs

A company called JUST Egg released a plant-based egg available in a squeeze bottle which you can use to make an egg scramble. Three tablespoons contain 70 calories and five grams of both protein and fat. It contains no saturated fat, cholesterol or sugar, and provides four percent of the daily recommended amount of iron. The protein is from mung bean protein isolate, while the fat comes from canola oil.

Compare it to the real deal (from chickens) and one egg provides 70 calories, six grams of protein, five grams of fat and 1.5 grams of saturated fat. While the initial facts sound similar, with real eggs you get more bang for your nutritional buck: One egg also provides 14 essential nutrients that many Americans under-consume on a regular basis. Eggs are commonly referred to as the "perfect" protein, and contain all your essential amino acids. They also contain vitamins A and D and the antioxidant lutein, which helps promote healthy skin and eyes. Almost half the protein is found in the yolk of eggs, which shouldn't be tossed.

What's the Verdict? 

Going plant-based does not mean that you need to avoid all animal products. Most people don't get enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains, so adding more plants to your diet is always a good thing. If you do choose to eat animal foods, they can be balanced together with plant foods in a healthy diet.

If you opt for any of these plant-based alternatives due to moral or ethical reasons as a vegetarian or vegan, it's important to educate yourself on the nutrients your diet may be lacking and always read nutrition labels to ensure you're not adding salt- or sugar-heavy processed foods to your body. In the end, today's plant-based alternatives are often not equivalent nutritionally to their animal counterparts.