Lab-grown foods like the Impossible Burger represent the ultimate conflict in health information: We're told that plant-based diets are healthy, but we're also told that processed foods are unhealthy. The Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger and other faux meat products are plant-based but highly processed.
So what's a person to choose? Plant-based or less processed?
First things first: Just because something is plant-based or vegan, that doesn't mean it's automatically healthy. White bread is vegan, as are tater tots. Cookies, cakes and even grilled cheeses can be entirely plant-based. And your doctor probably isn't telling you to eat more of those items, even if they are made of plants.
I'm not here to bash on plants -- I love vegetables, and I try to eat them with every meal. But as faux meat burgers skyrocket to unprecedented levels of popularity, it's worth taking a closer look at what's actually inside plant-based meat products and comparing the health implications.
To be fair, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, do not explicitly market their products as being healthier than beef, but rather as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to beef.
In this article, CNET covers how the two most common meat alternatives (faux beef and faux chicken) nutritionally compare to their real counterparts.
Real beef vs. plant-based beef
Gone are the days of crumbly black bean and tofu patties. Vegans and vegetarians -- and meat eaters -- can enjoy extremely beef-like burgers that contain no beef at all. The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger definitely top the fake beef popularity charts, but Kellogg, Kroger, Meatless Farm Co and other brands have followed suit with similar meatless patties.
The question is not whether these products do a good job at mimicking beef -- they do. The question, rather, is whether fake beef stacks up to real beef in terms of health and nutrition. Let's compare.
100 grams (3.5 ounces) of lean ground beef (10% fat) contains:
- 217 calories
- 12 g fat (5 g saturated)
- 90 mg cholesterol
- 70 mg sodium
- 0 g carbohydrate
- 0 g fiber
- 26 g protein
Keep in mind that the caloric and fat values of ground beef increase as the fat percentage increases.
The 4-ounce Impossible Burger 2.0 comes pretty close to beef, nutritionally:
- 240 calories
- 14 g fat (8 g saturated)
- 0 g cholesterol
- 370 mg sodium
- 9 g carbohydrate
- 3 g fiber
- 19 g protein
The Impossible Burger also boasts a pretty impressive micronutrient profile, but keep in mind these nutrients don't all occur naturally: Impossible Foods fortifies their burgers to boost the nutrient content.
While the macronutrient profiles of real beef and Impossible ground beef are comparable, their levels of processing are not. Because it doesn't occur in nature, plant-based beef is highly processed, comprised of a variety of plant ingredients, colorings, extracts and preservatives to mimic the taste, texture and aroma of real beef.
For example, the Impossible Burger contains soy protein, a strange ingredient called soy leghemoglobin, sunflower and coconut oils, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch and more. So if your goal is to eat less processed foods, real beef is the way to go (not including items like hot dogs, which are also very processed).
One particular concern about faux beef is the sodium content, as pointed out by Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative medicine doctor and creator of the praised Anti-Inflammatory Diet. One version of the Impossible Burger -- the Impossible Whopper at Burger King -- contains 1,240 milligrams of sodium, which is even more than what's in a regular Whopper.
Real chicken vs. vegan chicken
Chicken is arguably one of the healthiest foods on this planet. It's protein-packed and low in fat (as long as you eat skinless portions), and it contains ample iron and B vitamins. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing poultry as a protein source, and health organizations like the American Heart Association have dubbed chicken one of the healthiest proteins you can choose from.
Of course, you can turn any inherently healthy food into an unhealthy food. Eating chicken deep-fried or on a sandwich slathered with processed condiments renders it far less healthy than chicken alone. The best way to eat chicken? Roasted, grilled or baked in a healthy fat, such as extra virgin olive oil.
The nutrition facts for a skinless, 3-ounce serving of chicken breast are pretty stellar:
- 102 calories
- 2 g fat (2 g saturated)
- 53 mg cholesterol
- 46 mg sodium
- 0 g carbohydrate
- 0 g fiber
- 19 g protein
- 4% daily value of iron
Now let's take a look at plant-based "chicken." Many big food brands manufacture fake chicken products, including Gardein and Kellogg. Since we used the nutritional values for a skinless baked chicken breast, we'll compare the item closest to that.
Vegan food brand Quorn makes meatless chicken fillets, formerly called chik'n cutlets. Out of all the vegan chicken products I could find, this product looks most like a chicken breast straight out of the box.
This chicken-less chicken cutlet is made mostly of an ingredient called mycoprotein, a very nice-sounding way of saying "the processed cellular mass that is obtained from the filamentous fungus Fusarium venenatum strain PTA-2684," which is what the company noted in its application to the USDA for sale as a food product in the US, according to a 2002 Wired article.
Basically, Quorn's chicken products are made of a fermented and modified fungus, to which the company adds egg whites and other ingredients -- so this one isn't actually vegan, but it's still not meat.
Nonetheless, the patties don't seem unhealthy from a strictly nutritional standpoint. They're low in calories, fat and cholesterol, and high in fiber, but they don't offer nearly as much protein as real chicken.
Here are the nutrition facts for one serving of Quorn meatless chicken fillets (69 grams, or about 2.5 ounces):
- 60 calories
- 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat)
- 0 g cholesterol
- 190 mg sodium
- 6 g carbohydrate
- 5 g fiber
- 9 g protein
Other chicken substitutes are made from plant-based ingredients like soy protein, wheat protein, and other textured vegetable proteins. Like beef substitutes, chicken substitutes tend to contain long lists of ingredients, because these foods need additives to remain fresh and tasty.
Gardein's Meatless Chik'n Strips, for example, include wheat gluten, canola oil, methylcellulose, yeast extract, potato starch, distilled vinegar, added colors and more.
The consensus on real meat versus fake meat
There's no real scientific consensus on this topic yet, as vegan meat is too new for health officials to make a conclusion -- that's something scientists can do only after plenty of peer-reviewed, third-party (meaning not conducted by a vegan meat company) research has accumulated.
And even then, things can change: The last couple generations of Americans have spent their lives fearing red meat, only to find out that saturated fat really isn't as bad as we thought.
Also, the decision to eat vegan meat in place of real meat is more than a question of nutrition. Many people decide to eat a vegan diet out of moral and ethical values, such as animal welfare or environmental health.
Eating a plant-based meat substitute a few times a week probably won't hurt you, just like eating beef a few times a week won't hurt you. Fake meat is best treated like real meat: Use it as a protein source, not as a substitute for vegetables.