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Fake meat - is it any healthier than the real deal?

by Georgina 9 minutes read

Last updated: 26 Sep, 2023

In the ever-evolving world of dietary choices, the emergence of manufactured meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger has sparked both curiosity and controversy. Fake meat, also known as plant-based meat or meat substitutes, has taken centre stage in recent years as a potential solution to issues like environmental sustainability, public health concerns, and the happiness of vegans and vegetarians worldwide. While some have embraced plant-based proteins, like those of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, as a promising alternative to traditional meat, others remain sceptical about their nutritional value and long-term health implications, given that they are highly processed products. Let's delve into the world of plant-based meat alternatives: explore how they are made; what they're made of; and whether they should be a part of a healthy diet or discarded immediately.

The Rise of Plant-Based Burgers

In recent years, there has been a rapid, but not-so-surprising, surge in the popularity of plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger. Fast food chains and restaurants, including industry giants like KFC, Burger King, Nando's, and TGI Fridays, have not only started incorporating these options into their menus but have made them star features. Beyond Burgers have become staples, appearing on roughly half of the menus out there, alongside traditional beef burgers in not only chain restaurants, but also more independent local eateries. Nearly all local supermarkets now offer a wide array of plant-based meat alternatives, making it easier than ever to explore this culinary curiosity.

In the past, meat substitutes were more like experimental dishes, found either in people’s kitchens or a few select grocery shops – think tofu dogs and those not-so-great black bean burgers. They attempted to mimic the look and texture of real meat but often fell short. Trying to replicate the taste seemed like a pipe dream. Fast forward to today and much has changed. Burgers, nuggets, sausages, fillets or pretty much any other style, form, or shape you can think of can be crafted these days. And they not only look like meat but also taste surprisingly similar.

What's inside?

So, what are these meat alternatives actually made of? They mainly consist of plant protein from ingredients like pea, soy, and wheat, which provide the solid structure of the food and contribute to its high protein content. Gum and thickeners are added to give it a chewy texture and bind the ingredients together. Many meat substitutes also contain healthy fats, like refined coconut oil, to mimic the juicy texture of real meat. In addition, these products can be fortified with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, to ensure a well-rounded nutritional profile, and in this area Beyond and Impossible stand a good head above their competitors.

So now we’ve covered texture, how about flavour? Well meat gets its unique umami flavour during cooking through something called the Maillard Reaction – a series of chemical reactions between amino acids. Plant-based meats often attempt to mimic this process because it's what gives that browned, savoury exterior to your favourite steak. While they do a decent job, it’s difficult to replicate it perfectly due to differences in their chemical makeup. To achieve that meaty taste, plant-based burgers use natural or artificial flavours that create a similar experience. You'll also find yeast extract in many of them, acting as a flavour enhancer, much like MSG. And, of course, there's good old salt – the magic cure for all things bland. Some brands, like Impossible Foods, use heme, an iron-rich molecule derived from modified yeast. This is what makes their burgers "bleed" and taste much like the real deal.

How they're made

Next step, turning this combination of ingredients and chemicals into the patties in your fridge. To be honest, the process isn’t as complicated as it might seem, just mix it all together into a meaty dough, similar to making cookie dough but with more protein. From there, it's pretty much business as usual in a regular meat factory. The pink putty gets shaped, frozen, packed, and sent off to your local grocery store or restaurant.

Health check

Part of the driving force behind the popularity of plant-based burgers has been the desire for healthier options in an era of increasing concern over the long-term impact of meat consumption, particularly regarding carcinogens in red meat and concerns of heart disease. Many people see these products as a healthier option, but is that true? The term "plant-based" often gives the impression of healthiness and the marketing of fake meats as better for the environment and more ethical can often make it seem automatically healthier.

The ultimate question is - how healthy are these plant-based meat products really? When it comes to fake meats there are some pros and cons to consider:

The Pros:

  • High in protein.
  • High in amino acid lysine (especially those made from soy or pea protein).
  • High in fibre content.
  • Most plant-based meats are low in saturated fat, good for those looking to cut back on red meat.
  • They can be a gateway to eating more veggies and plant-based foods in general.

The Cons:

  • Some products can be high in sodium.
  • Certain plant-based meat options may contain overly processed ingredients and additives.
  • Can be dangerous for those with food allergies, particularly those with an allergy to soy.

But just because something is made from plants does not automatically make it healthier for you. Whilst many meat alternatives are low in saturated fats, not all are, and the most popular of the bunch, Beyond and Impossible, contain roughly the same amount of saturated fat as a meat-based burger, and more sodium.

On the other side, high protein and lysine levels can be hard to come by in most foods making up a vegan or even vegetarian diet, other than legumes, according to registered dietician Taylor Wolfram. So, we cannot underestimate the role that fake meats can play in creating a more nutritious diet for all the non-meat eaters out there. The high fibre content, often higher than that of real meat, can also help you feel fuller for longer and curb excessive eating. Food journalist Larissa Zimberoff suggests about 95% of Americans are not eating the recommended amounts of daily fibre and hopes fake meats can be a game changer in this. And whilst there is a common assumption that processed equals bad, that isn’t necessarily true. Not all industrially produced food is bad, even bags of rice or spinach or cans of tomatoes are all processed to some degree. Whilst processed and synthetic foods can often miss out on the good bits of the whole food source, many brands out there are constantly evolving on this, adding in more and more of what you need.

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The future of fake meat

One major reason behind the success of plant-based meats over the last decade is the backing of big technology companies and savvy marketing strategies. These tech giants have invested significant resources in developing plant-based meat alternatives, pushing the boundaries of what's possible and improving the overall quality of these products. The result is a wide range of options that come close to replicating the experience of eating real meat and we can expect to see even more innovations and improvements in the coming years.

Another significant reason for the popularity of meat alternatives is the growing concern about the environment. Traditional livestock farming contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, among other environmental issues. Many people are choosing plant-based alternatives to reduce their impact on the planet and make more ethical choices regarding animal welfare. And this is only likely to be an ever-growing concern impacting the food market in coming decades.

Here's the surprising part: A massive 41% of Americans have already tasted these meat alternatives, indicating a significant shift in our eating habits. Adding to the astonishment, some experts predict that the market for alternative meat could reach a staggering $140 billion, making up 10% of the entire meat market, by the end of this decade. So, should you join the plant-based meat trend?

Keep or cut

Ultimately the choice is up to the individual. If you’re looking for a whole, healthy diet made up of organic foods then no, fake meats are probably not for you. But if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, looking to ease your meat cravings and incorporate these alternatives into your diet in a balanced way, then go ahead. Again, as we keep saying at DoNotDonut - everything in moderation. If you’re a meat eater looking for healthier options and to cut the calories, I’d recommend just switching to leaner meats instead. But for those following a plant-based diet, fake meats can help boost the protein, fibre, and lysine levels in your diet that might have dropped since ditching meat. As more and more of us move away from meat consumption, we will see that whilst fake meats may not be the healthy food revolution people might have hoped for, it can still play a part in a healthy diet.

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