Are Plant Based Meat Substitutes Healthier Than Regular Meat?

Can the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat outdo beef? What do the numbers say?

In 2014 Beyond Meat began offering a plant-based meat substitute. Beyond Meat is comprised of pea, rice, and mung bean protein. The red coloring is created by adding beet juice extract. Beyond Meat’s beef substitute, available at many grocery stores, can be found in raw meat form, similar to beef, as well as patties.

In 2016 the Impossible Burger was launched as a beef patty substitute. Impossible adds Heme molecules found in soy plants to their soy-based patties by way of the leghemoglobin molecule. The Heme helps add a meat-like taste and adds the redness you might find in meat. Broadly speaking the Impossible Burger is not yet available in most stores around the country.

Throughout this article, we will reference 4 oz. portions, a common and recommended serving size.

Until the introduction of these substitutes. The most common beef patty substituted was a black bean burger. These products offered only roughly half as much protein as a beef patty making them less of a close substitute.

Comparing thee products to beef products can be challenging. While they are meant to be nutritional substitutes for a common beef patty (85% lean is most commonly served in restaurants) they are not monetary substitutes due to their relatively high cost. $2.25 per serving for Beyond and $3.00 per serving for Impossible compared to $0.94 for 85% lean beef. For monetary comparisons, what you could get for the same money nutritionally, so we’ll use 95% lean beef to compare to, though it still has a mild cost advantage at $1.88 per serving.  

The Big Picture: Macronutrients

Practically speaking for a food to be a good nutritional substitute it would be expected to contain at least the same macronutrients in somewhat equivalent levels. So how do the meat substitute products hold up?

When eating meat protein is the primary macronutrient most might consider as the most important. A beef patty contains 22 grams (85% lean) and 24 grams (95% lean) of protein while Impossible provides 19 grams and Beyond 20 grams. From the perspective of protein, these products stand up to beef.

Beef also provides the body with some fat, too much of which can be bad. Impossible provides 14 grams, Beyond provides 18 grams, 85% lean provides 17 grams and 95% lean provides just 6 grams. Compared to the 85% lean the nutritional value is roughly equivalent though 95% lean beef only contains 1/3 to ½ at 6 grams. The meat substitutes contain roughly the same amount as a standard burger. The old classic black bean burgers have an advantage at just 4 grams.

Reviewing saturated fat we can start to see beef gain an advantage. 85% lean and Beyond contains 6 grams but Impossible contains 8 grams. The 2-gram difference may not seem like much but the daily allowance is only roughly 13 grams. As one might expect 95% lean only contains 2 grams. Beyond still looks like a good substitute to the common patty but Impossible seems a little less healthy when it comes to saturated fat. In the Impossible burger, this is mostly due to the process used to manufacture the patty so that it has a red center and meaty taste.

As you might expect beef contains no carbohydrates. All of the meat substitute products contain some carbohydrates. These are only 5-10% of the recommended daily allowance so not unhealthy by any means but compared to beef, beef has a clear advantage here. If you were watching your carbs (keto, Atkins, etc) you would not be able to consume these meat substitutes.

Lastly sugars. Beef also contains no sugars along with Beyond. Impossible contains a single gram. Again, not a health detriment but compared to beef the Impossible burger loses out. Special dieters would need to consider if they can consume an Impossible patty.

Overall, from a Macronutrient level, the new meat substitute products do look to be good nutritional substitutes as long as you consider the extra saturated fat and carbs you’ll consume. Beef is still a nutritionally better product on paper though new meat substitutes have come a long way in delivering the same amount of protein with more saturated fat and carbohydrates.

The Details: Micronutrients

Overall meat substitutes do provide some micronutrients. Impossible, where they do provide micronutrients, provide a great deal, however Impossible only provides half the number of micronutrients regular beef does. Beyond provides even less – roughly 20% of what beef provides. One of these nutrients is sodium. Meat substitutes provide five times as much sodium and border on being labeled high sodium products. Providing only half the micronutrients as beef and five times the sodium makes meat substitutes a poor substitute and a less healthy one when it comes to micronutrients.

Meat substitutes have come a long way. They now provide equivalent amounts of macronutrients, specifically protein, as well as similar texture and redness. This addition, however, was not replicated in providing micronutrients and still suffers from a very large drawback as previous generation meat substitutes, high levels of sodium as well as high levels of saturated fat and carbohydrates.

Betaine – Meat substitutes contain no betaine, beef does.
Folate – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains roughly 15 times the amount as beef.
Niacin – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains roughly the same amount as beef.
Pantothenic Acid – Meat substitutes contain Pantothenic acid , beef does.
Riboflavin – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains roughly 2 times the amount as beef.
Thiamin – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains 25 times the daily allowance beef has trace amounts.
Vitamin A – Beyond contains 4 times the amount as beef, Impossible contains none.
Vitamin A, RAE – Meat substitutes contain no Vitamin A, RAE, beef does.
Vitamin B12 – Meat substitutes contain no vitamin E, beef does.
Vitamin B6 – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains roughly the same amount as beef.
Vitamin D – Meat substitutes contain no vitamin D, beef does.
Vitamin E – Meat substitutes contain no vitamin E, beef does.
Vitamin K – Meat substitutes contain no vitamin K, beef does.
Calcium, Ca – Both Impossible and Beyond contain 5-10 times the amount of beef.
Copper, Cu – Meat substitutes contain no copper, beef does.
Iron, Fe – Impossible contains the same as a Beef Filet Mignon Beyond and beef contain roughly the same amount.
Magnesium, Mg – Meat substitutes contain no copper, beef does.
Phosphorus, P – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains less than beef.
Potassium, K – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains roughly double the amount as beef.
Selenium, Se – Meat substitutes contain no copper, beef does.
Sodium, Na – Meat substitutes contain 5 times the amount as beef.
Zinc, Zn – Beyond contains none, Impossible contains roughly the same amount as beef.

Plant-based vs beef


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