Are plant-based ‘meats’ really better for you & the planet?


Written by:

The Quick and Dirt:

  1. Plant-based meat alternatives often have nutrient profiles similar to that of real meat.
  2. Although plants have a much lower environmental impact than beef, the high degree of processing involved in plant-based meat alternatives closes the gap significantly.
  3. Replacing meat with meat alternatives even some of the time may have minor but beneficial effects on the microbiome.

The market for plant-based meat alternatives is growing fast, but many are wondering whether these meat-free, yet highly-processed foods are really a better choice in terms of nutrition or the environment. These days, we’re also curious about how various foods and dietary patterns affect the microbiome, which in turn influences so many aspects of our health. And there’s some new research on that to share.

Related: Yes, lab-grown meat (without animals) is for real

SPONSORED: Find a Qualified Financial Advisor

1. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to 3 fiduciary financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes.

2. Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

First, let me clarify what type of foods we’re talking about. We’re not talking about cultured meat products, which are actual meat but produced without animals. I’m also not referring to veggie burgers, bean burgers and other products which aren’t trying to mimic the flavor and texture of meat (or at least, aren’t trying very successfully!).

I’m talking about products that are designed not just to stand in for meat but to mimic it with increasing verisimilitude. For example, Impossible BurgerBeyond Burger and Meatless Farm all have products that look and cook just like raw ground beef. They are often sold right next to the actual ground beef and are packaged so similarly that if you weren’t paying attention, you might easily think they were ground beef. 

These types of plant-based meat alternatives are not intended for people who find the idea of eating meat disgusting. These are for people who really enjoy eating meat but feel like it would be better for their health—or the health of the planet—not to.

But would it? Let’s take a closer look at how they stack up.

Are meatless burgers more nutritious?

While old-school veggie burgers are often lower in fat and calories, the new plant-based meat alternatives are formulated to be much closer to the nutrient profile of meat. They have close to the same amount of protein, fat and calories. Some even have the same amount of saturated fat and heme iron, a form of iron that is normally only found in animal foods. So they may not offer the same nutritional advantages that people generally expect from a vegetarian diet.

Learn More: Nutritional comparison of plant-based beef alternatives

One advantage that these plant-based meat alternatives do retain, however, is that they do not create heterocyclic amines (HCA) when grilled. These compounds are created when meat or fish are cooked over direct or high heat and have been linked to cancer. The amino acids involved in this reaction are only present in animal muscle tissue. So grilling a plant-based burger will not create HCAs and does not pose this danger.

But remember that the context in which we consume food also matters. One of the ways that eating a lot of hamburgers might drag down the nutritional quality of your diet is not the burger itself but what goes with it: the bun, french fries and a soda or milkshake. Simply inserting a plant-based burger instead of a beef patty into a fast-food meal obviously doesn’t mitigate all of those other factors.

And finally, it’s worth mentioning that these plant-based alternatives are all considered ultra-processed foods, a category of foods that we are supposed to be eschewing. Ultra-processed foods are those in which a large proportion of the ingredients are not foods or ingredients that you might use in your own kitchen but extracts, isolates, fractions, concentrates, additives and other industrially manipulated compounds. Diets that contain a lot of ultra-processed foods have been linked with a lot of adverse health outcomes.

But I think it’s also worth taking into account the purpose that the processing serves. In this case, the primary purpose of all that processing is not to turn cheap ingredients into irresistible, high-calorie snack foods with a high-profit margin and indefinite shelf life. It’s done in order to produce a plant-based product that is sufficiently similar to meat that a meat-lover would be willing or even happy to have instead.

Some would argue that, in this case, the downside of more processing is offset by the upside of not eating meat. And that argument might be more compelling if your primary motivation for avoiding meat is a concern for the impact on animals or the environment, as opposed to your own health and nutrition

Are plant-based meat alternatives easier on the environment?

When it comes to animal welfare, meat-free burgers clearly have the advantage. No cows are involved, except perhaps in fertilizing the field in which the soybeans are grown. But when it comes to the impact on the environment, it’s not as straightforward.

Calculating the environmental impact of any product is enormously complex. A product’s carbon footprint takes into account greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But GHGs are not all equivalent in their impacts. Methane, for example, is much more potent than carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, however, it doesn’t persist in the environment nearly as long as carbon dioxide. Methane that’s generated through animal agriculture (i.e. cow farts) also impacts the environment much differently than methane that’s generated when fossil fuels are burned. Simple comparisons of total greenhouse gas emissions may be misleading.

There’s also water and land use to consider, as well as the impact on biodiversity and soil quality. And then there’s the question of where in the lifecycle of a product your analysis starts and stops. Are you only measuring the impacts of growing the food or are you also including the impacts of processing, packaging, storage, and transportation? Whenever you’re trying to compare environmental impacts, you want to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

If you’re just looking at what it takes to produce the raw commodity, soy and other crops have a much lower environmental impact than beef. But processing is also energy and resource-intensive—and all the processing involved in turning plants into something that looks an awful lot like ground beef adds a lot to the environmental impact of plant-based meat alternatives.

Plant-based meat alternatives still have a lower environmental impact than beef. But their environmental impact is much higher than whole or minimally processed plant foods. If protecting the environment is your primary motivator, you might want to choose a plant-based burger instead of a beef burger but still make that a once- or twice-a-month meal, instead of a weekly one. (That’s basically what we’ve done in my household.)

How does fake meat affect your microbiome?

And finally, there’s new research on the impact of plant-based meat alternatives on the microbiome. Researchers gathered a small group of subjects, all of whom reported eating some sort of animal product (meat, poultry, fish, eggs or cheese) on a daily basis. Half of them continued as before. The other half substituted a plant-based meat alternative (such as a raw ground meat product) for meat at least four times per week for four weeks.

The researchers were interested to see how this real-world scenario, which was designed to mimic how “flexitarian” consumers might actually use these products, would affect the microbiome. And the results were … not very exciting.

They did see a difference in the microbiome of the group that ate the plant-based meat alternatives and some of those differences were in a direction that would generally be considered beneficial. But the difference was very small.

Substituting plant-based meat alternatives for meat—even if you don’t adopt a strictly vegan diet—might lead to minor but positive shifts in the microbiome. However, the researchers note that this finding, even as modest as it is, could be an argument for removing that “ultra-processed” designation from this particular class of processed foods.

What do you think? Have you replaced any of the meat in your life with one of these more highly processed meat alternatives? Or do you find them too processed (or simply not appetizing)? I’d love to hear what you think. You can email me at or call the listener line at the number below and leave me a voicemail.


This article
originally appeared on and was
syndicated by

More from MediaFeed:

These chain restaurants will make you miss the old days

These chain restaurants will make you miss the old days

For most American kids in the 20th century, what would vacation travel have been without a roadside stop at the family’s favorite fast-food joint?

The 20th century was a heyday for restaurant chains with funky decor and colorful mascots. As times have changed, many of those childhood favorites have become extinct or critically endangered.

As much as we may miss these establishments, there’s a reason they’re no longer on the menu.

Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, you’d be hard pressed to find one of the 1,000-plus Howard Johnson restaurant parking lot that wasn’t full at lunchtime. Now, there’s only one left standing in Lake George, New York, and it’s seen plenty a sparse lunch hour.

The company’s hotel chain is still alive and well, with over 500 working facilities, but gone are the days when the restaurant served the most meals outside of homes in America (second only to the Army).

Novelties like fried clam strips and signature ice cream have lost their appeal in a health-and-budget-conscious society. These days, the expensive, less-than-fresh food just doesn’t cut it anymore.

One souvenir of Howard Johnson’s menu: The 28 flavors of ice cream it famously boasted inspired Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins to offer 31 flavors — one for each day of the month.


In 1926, Chock Full o’Nuts opened as a counter to buy — you guessed it — nuts. Pre-shelled and ready to snack on, the treat became an unaffordable luxury during the Great Depression, so the stores rebranded to sell coffee and sandwiches for a reasonable price.

The Chock Full o’Nuts television jingle of the ’50s and ’60s featured the lyrics, “Chock full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.” That dig at New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (owner of South American coffee interests) brought a lawsuit and compelled the chain to change the lyric to “a millionaire’s money.”

Now, there are a few restaurants holding on in New York and the tri-state area, trying to compete with specialty coffee shops and myriad Manhattan lunch options.

andsome96 / Flickr

Farrell’s ice cream parlor, known for its singing waiters, train whistles, and Tiffany-style lamps along with generous ice-cream scoops and the famous Zoo sundae, closed its last location in Brea, Califiornia, in 2019. The brand was born in 1963 and grew to include 130 locations around the country, most of which closed in the ‘90s.

Marcus Lemonis, who owns the brand, told the OC Register that this isn’t necessarily the end of the road.  “I’ll hold onto it until I find another opportunity, even a smaller concept like a quick serve, and trademark it,” he said. “I’ll put it on the shelf and wait for the right window.”

AngryJulieMonday / Flickr

Named for the British character actor who played the constable in Disney’s 1964 Mary Poppins, among other roles, this Columbus, Ohio-born chain became a fast-food icon of the ’70s and ’80s.

With 826 locations across the nation, it was known for its flaky Alaska pollock, daring use of vinegar as a condiment for French fries, and bright yellow-and-green awning. Now there are three original locations still in Ohio and a scattering of outlets that have partnered with Nathan’s Hot Dogs along the New York coast.

Phillip Pessar / Flickr

`1975 saw the rise of this Minneapolis-based Tex-Mex chain known for its chimichangas and fried ice cream in an era when Mexican food was still exotic in many parts of the country.

The 237 locations dropped to 144 by the early 2000s thanks to increased competition, and the chain finally collapsed when a shipment of green onions imported from Mexico caused a hepatitis outbreak in 2003, sickening 636 people and killing four.

If you really want a Chi-Chi’s chimichanga, there are still some locations in Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Ponderosa Steakhouse, a Western-style steakhouse chain that began in Indiana in 1968 as the brainchild of two eager restaurateurs without much experience. The chain did fairly well and engaged in some fierce competition with a similar chain, Bonanza, both of which were bought by FAT brands in 2017.

However, that didn’t save many locations of both chains from closing unexpectedly, leaving workers and diners alike in the dust.

Wikimedia Commons

Opened in 1954 with high hopes of joining the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, Burger Chef invented the kids’ meal prototype of including a toy with a child’s portion burger and fries.

The chain made a re-appearance in the TV show Mad Men, but that’s the most recently we’ve seen the franchise — its grill sizzle fizzled when it overexpanded, then lost a lawsuit against McDonald’s over the resemblance of the Happy Meal to Burger Chef’s Fun Meal.

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

Northridge Alumni Bear Facts / Flickr

Featured Image Credit: