Written by Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD on January 4, 2022 — Medically reviewed by Adrienne Seitz, MS, RD, LDN, Nutrition
You’ve probably noticed that plant-based meats are becoming more widely available. These are products made with plant ingredients that can be used in recipes that traditionally use meat, making them vegan or vegetarian.
As someone who follows a plant-based diet, I can attest that many meatless alternatives can be used in the same ways you might use meat. For example, there are meatless burgers, hot dogs, bacon, ground crumbles, meatballs, and even deli slices.
Many of them are so versatile and delicious that people who don’t necessarily follow a plant-based diet enjoy eating them too.
However, despite their popularity, you may be wondering whether plant-based meat alternatives are healthy.
This article examines the nutritional value of some of the most commonly used plant-based meat alternatives, as well as benefits and downsides to consider.
A growing number of plant-based meat alternatives are available today. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular varieties.
Seitan is a plant-based meat substitute made from vital wheat gluten. It has a savory flavor and chewy texture that works well in stir-fry, sandwiches, stews, and pasta dishes.
In many grocery stores, you can find seitan in the form of cubes, strips, or thin deli slices that are ready to use.
You can also make seitan at home using vital wheat gluten, vegetable broth, and flavoring agents such as soy sauce or liquid aminos and garlic. All you have to do is combine ingredients in a mixer, create a dough, and then boil slices of the dough to cook it.
However, because it’s made with gluten, seitan isn’t appropriate for people who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Beyond Meat products
Beyond Meat is a popular brand of plant-based meat products. While it was initially recognized for its debut vegan burger, called the Beyond Burger, this brand now also makes plant-based ground meat, sausage, meatballs, and chicken.
The primary ingredient in a Beyond Burger is pea protein. It also contains refined coconut oil, rice protein, cocoa butter, and dried yeast.
Beyond Burgers are free from soy and gluten and are naturally colored using beet juice. One patty provides 100% of the Daily Value for vitamin B12, 40% for zinc, and 20% for iron (3).
Impossible Burgers are a similar concept to the Beyond Burger. Impossible Foods, the brand behind these burgers, also makes meatless sausage, chicken-style nuggets, and pork alternatives using plant ingredients.
Instead of pea protein, Impossible Burgers use potato and soy proteins.
They get their meat-like flavor from heme iron. While it’s normally derived from animal products, the heme iron used for Impossible Burgers is derived from the root nodules of soybean plants and made through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast (4Trusted Source).
The Impossible Burger offers an array of micronutrients. For instance, one patty offers 50% of the Daily Value for zinc, 130% for vitamin B12, and 25% for iron (5).
Because of its consistency and mild flavor, jackfruit flesh is often used in place of meat dishes such as pulled pork. For instance, I like to put plain jackfruit in the slow cooker with barbecue sauce and onions to make sandwiches.
Jackfruit is low in calories and doesn’t have much protein or fat compared to other plant-based meat alternatives. However, it does offer some fiber and a small number of micronutrients, such as iron, potassium, and calcium (7).
Soy is a legume and one of the original plant-based meat alternatives. Soy-based foods tend to have a mild flavor and versatile texture that make them ideal for use in many traditionally meat-based dishes.
Soy-based foods include the following popular choices:
- Soybeans. Also called edamame, soybeans are a great addition to stir-fry. You can also cook them and eat them as a snack.
- Tofu. A spongy cake made from soybeans and water, tofu can be pressed, cubed, and cooked. You can use it in stir-fry or salads, slice it and add it to sandwiches, or crumble it and cook it with vegetables (similar to the way some folks might use scrambled eggs).
- Tempeh. This is a fermented soybean product sold in long blocks. Tempeh works well sliced into thin strips and added to stir-fry or crumbled and used in stews, chilis, tacos, or sloppy joes.
- Soy-containing meat alternatives. Some of the more processed plant-based meat alternatives, such as premade veggie burgers, use soy protein in their recipes.
There are more plant-based meat alternatives today than ever before. Some of the most common are seitan, jackfruit, soy foods, and premade products that mimic traditional meats, such as those from the brands Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
Below is a comparison chart of the basic nutritional composition of the plant-based meat alternatives discussed above.
The nutritional information provided is for a single serving, the size of which can differ among products and brands and is noted below.
|Calories||Protein (grams)||Total fat (grams)||Saturated fat (grams)||Total carbs (grams)||Fiber (grams)||Sodium (mg)|
|Seitan, 100 grams (4 ounces) sliced (1Trusted Source)||141||25||2.3||0||6||1.2||447|
|Beyond Burger, 113-gram (4-ounce) patty (3)||230||20||14||5||7||2||390|
|Impossible Burger, 113-gram (4-ounce) patty (5)||240||19||14||8||9||3||370|
|Jackfruit, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) (8Trusted Source)||33||1.3||0||0||6.7||4||20|
|Tofu, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) (9Trusted Source)||49||4.4||2.2||0||1.1||0||16|
Among popular meat alternatives, seitan, Beyond Burgers, and Impossible Burgers are highest in sodium, protein, and calories. The latter two are high in total and saturated fat. Jackfruit and tofu are low in calories and sodium and free from saturated fat.
Some of the main benefits of consuming plant-based meat alternatives are subjective in that many people choose to consume them for a variety of personal reasons.
For example, I eat plant-based meat alternatives because they are more aligned with my personal ethics than eating meat.
Additionally, certain plant-based meats are free from nutrients that some people may want to limit for heart health, such as saturated fat and sodium — though the amounts depend on the specific product (12Trusted Source).
In recent years, research has linked a high intake of processed and red meats to an increased risk of developing certain cancers, particularly colon and breast cancers (13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).
Because plants are the only natural sources of fiber, adopting a more whole food-based, plant-centric diet is a simple way to increase fiber intake — in addition to getting more vitamins, minerals, and compounds that offer further health protection (17Trusted Source).
Plus, a great thing about plant-based meats is that many of them offer a similar taste, texture, and versatility to meat, so they can work well for people who don’t want to consume animal products.
Many people prefer to eat plant-based meat alternatives due to their stances on animal welfare and the environment. Some meat alternatives are also free from certain nutrients some folks want to limit, such as saturated fat and sodium.
While plant-based meat alternatives can offer a number of benefits, they may also have some downsides to consider.
For instance, not all plant-based meats are created equally.
Some highly processed products, such as those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, are just as high in total and saturated fat as their meat counterparts. The burgers even contain more sodium than a single beef patty, which may not support heart health (12Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).
Additionally, many packaged meat alternatives contain other ingredients that some people don’t wish to consume, such as refined oils, modified cornstarch, dextrose, or added sugar.
The best way to avoid any ingredients that are of concern to you is to read the ingredient list on any packaged plant-based meat alternative.
Finally, while tofu is inexpensive, other plant-based meat alternatives can be more costly per serving.
Not all plant-based meat alternatives are inherently healthy. Some still contain large amounts of saturated fat and sodium, as well as other ingredients you may want to avoid. Additionally, some of the more processed options can be fairly expensive.
As with any food, the healthiest options among plant-based meat alternatives are the ones you can eat in as close to their original, whole form as possible.
For example, jackfruit flesh or a soy food like tofu undergoes significantly less processing than products like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger.
However, this doesn’t mean the other plant-based meat alternatives can’t also fit into an overall healthy diet. Although they’re more processed, Impossible and Beyond Burgers are good sources of plant protein. They could arguably be healthier choices than fast-food hamburgers.
When choosing a plant-based meat alternative, it’s a good idea to opt for ones like jackfruit and soy foods most often and incorporate the highly processed options into your diet less frequently.
Don’t forget, you can also use legumes — such as beans, peas, and lentils — in place of meat in many recipes. These are not only inexpensive but also full of beneficial nutrients and easy to incorporate into homemade veggie burgers, chilis, soups, stews, tacos, and salads.
The healthiest way to enjoy plant-based meat alternatives is to choose the least processed options, such as whole soy foods, jackfruit, and legumes, most of the time and consume premade burgers and other meat alternatives less often.
A growing number of plant-based meat alternatives are available today. Many of them are so delicious and easy to access that even people who don’t follow a plant-based diet enjoy eating them.
From a nutritional standpoint, many of the more highly processed meat alternatives aren’t necessarily healthy choices. For instance, they tend to be high in sodium and saturated fat.
While I’d recommend emphasizing less-processed meat alternatives most of the time — such as seitan and whole soy foods — products like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger can still be enjoyed on occasion as part of an overall healthy diet.
Just one thing
Try this today: If you’re not used to plant-based meat alternatives, it could be fun to try a few. Consider having some friends over and preparing a spread of different plant-based burgers, perhaps including a frozen option, a homemade option, and a Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger, to see what you think.