Here’s the scoop on plant-based meats.

Plant-based eating is enjoying a heyday, as more and more people are cutting back on their meat consumption for their health, their wallets, and the environment. Grocery sales of meat alternatives have exploded, and even fast food giants like McDonald’s, Burger King, White Castle, and Subway now boast their plant-based offerings. Meat alternative companies have marketed their products as a healthy substitute for animal protein. But just how true is this claim?

The Good News

Arguably the most popular of the meatless meats on the market are meatless burgers.  These 100% plant-based beef lookalikes are justifiably hyped as a standby for the real thing. They take on the look, taste, and texture of a standard beef burger shockingly well, some even mimicking its “bloody” pink color while in its raw state. All of this, without the health and environmental concerns associated with red meat.  These meatless burgers don’t only imitate the taste and texture of a beef burger, their nutritional profiles stack up with beef in beneficial ways as well.  Several meatless burgers pack in 20 grams of protein, which is on par with a beef patty, and exceed beef’s iron by more than double, at 30% of the recommended daily value. They also offer dietary fiber, where the beef burger does not.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, these burgers are less than impressive when it comes to calories, saturated fat, and sodium compared to their beef counterpart.  Their calorie counts are only slightly less than beef’s 287 calories, and to provide that sizzle when grilled, coconut oil is added which is mostly saturated fat. The biggest drawback might be their sodium content which approaches a whopping 370 milligrams, an amount significantly higher than beef’s 75 milligrams.

Processed Foods: What You Should Know

While these troublesome numbers alone are enough to concern any health-conscious eater, it must also be noted that these burgers are anything but whole foods. In fact, they are heavily processed, being formulated in a lab. Health experts are concerned with our overconsumption of processed foods. Highly processed foods generally contain refined ingredients, are usually crammed with fat, salt, and sugar, and are designed to be highly addictive. Eating too many of these foods is linked to serious health problems, such as heart disease and metabolic syndrome.  A good rule of thumb is to read your labels! Take the time to read the ingredient list before you buy your food. Avoid buying foods with complex, hard to pronounce ingredients, and only consume those that contain ingredients you would cook with at home.

What’s the verdict?

Although meatless meats are completely made of plant-derived ingredients and boast a high protein and iron content, most on the market can hardly be considered a healthy alternative to meat due to their high calories, saturated fat, and sodium. Before you purchase any meatless alternative, read the ingredient list to make sure you’re not putting your health at risk. Or better yet, try your hand at preparing your own delicious veggie burgers using whole food ingredients like beans, lentils, brown rice, and pulsed vegetables. Remember to keep your plate nutritious. Avoid pairing your veggie burger with unhealthy sides like salty, oily fries that can derail your healthy eating goals. Need help getting started? A simple Google search is all you need to access tons of easy, tasty, and nutritious recipes.