Healthy Bites: The Nutrition Behind Plant-based Meats

By Michelle Lau

Plant-based products are changing the meat market and consumer behavior, but are these products right for your body?

Plant-based “meats” are nothing new – veggie burgers, vegan deli meat and chicken-less nuggets have been around for decades. But while these products have typically aimed to meet the needs of vegetarians and vegans and don’t necessarily match the taste and texture of meat, “next generation” plant-based meat alternatives are attempting to mimic the real thing as far as possible.

Many of these new alternatives have come in the form of foods traditionally made with red or minced meat, like burgers and sausages, and the faux-meat revolution has taken Hong Kong by storm: these products are now available at fast food chains, in grocery stores, and even at local cha chaan teng restaurants.

With my experience working with food companies, hospitality groups, and restaurants, I have seen an increasing demand from consumers for more plant-based food options in the past couple of years. One example is the increase in demand for plant-based burgers. Mentions of the Impossible Burger were non-existent in Asia before 2018, and now you can find them at restaurants and even fast-food chains citywide. Hong Kongers now even have the opportunity to cook plant-based meat at home by purchasing them from these restaurants.

While some fast food eateries have had to make big shifts in order to cater to the growing plant-based community, other chains have had the groundwork already in place and are now scaling up production of the plant-based products they already offered. Marks & Spencer, for example, has filled its stores’ refrigerated shelves with the veggie-forward Plant Kitchen range, which offers everything from comfort food to midweek suppers.

Similarly, a new plant-based series including New Era Nuggets and the New Era Burger, created using plant-based meat from Alpha Foods and Gardein respectively, has been launched recently at selected KFC locations in Hong Kong.

So why the craze over these meat imposters? And what are they actually made from, if not beef, chicken, fish, or pork? Let’s take a closer look at what’s really in these patties and what you should know about eating one.

There is a real health halo around plant-based meats, and perhaps an undeserved one. Comparing the nutritional value of the Impossible and Beyond patties to a beef patty, for example, isn’t really that black and white. When reviewing the Impossible Burger, you will see a very long list of ingredients, only a few of which are recognizable as whole foods. The main ingredients are pea protein isolates and soy protein concentrates, which are extracted from plants in a lab and are not whole foods – they are just parts of a whole food.

Both burgers include coconut and other oils that are high in saturated fat and each include a list of ingredients such as methylcellulose, soy leghemoglobin (also known as heme), and zinc gluconate.

Strictly from a calorie standpoint, both of the burger alternatives can be compared to a higher-fat cut of meat, such as 80/20 ground beef. One 4 oz Beyond Burger has 250 calories, and the same size Impossible Burger has 240. When it comes to saturated fat – which should make up less than 10% of your daily energy intake, since it can increase your risk for heart disease – the Beyond Burger has 6 g, while the Impossible has 8 g. However, a traditional healthy grass fed beef burger containing Omega-3 fats has 6 g.

Furthermore, both the Beyond and the Impossible burgers tip the sodium scales significantly, with 390 mg and 370 mg, while a grass-fed beef burger has just 7 mg.

Whenever you see a long list of ingredients, it’s an indicator that the product has to go through a lot of manufacturing and processing before it reaches your plate, and will likely contain ingredients that are not commonly found in the everyday kitchen. Ultra-processed foods tend to contain more sodium than their whole foods-based counterparts. Not to mention, people with soy or coconut allergies are advised to avoid these faux-meat burgers, since they often contain one or both ingredients.

Despite all the above nutritional information, in general, switching from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet is still good for your health. It’s likely to reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension, but because these faux-meats are not whole plant foods, I can’t necessarily say that these meat replacements will have the same health impact as, say, beans or lentils do.

While the jury is still out on their impact on health, replacing meat with faux-meat can be a great option if you are looking to cut back on your red meat consumption. Moreover, if you don’t eat animals because of ethical or religious reason, yet still miss the taste of a burger or chicken nuggets, then these faux meats might be able to fill the void, as long as you think of them as a ‘sometimes’ food, and not an ‘all the time’ meat substitute.

By coming close to providing both the nutrition and sensory attributes of eating a burger or sausage, these faux meats allow consumers to make a plant-based substitution without sacrificing the experience of eating meat. Last but not least, as both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat point out, the production of their faux meat uses significantly fewer land and water resources than are required to raise cattle. Since livestock production is one of the main producers of greenhouse gas emissions, going plant-based is a step toward saving the planet as well.

Whether you opt for a burger made from red meat or from plants, my advice is the same: pair it with a whole grain bun, pile a bunch of vegetables on top, and be mindful of the other toppings and condiments of your choosing. Say no to fries, sodas, and milkshakes, and remember that though plant-based meats are a great step in the right direction for our bodies and the planet, they are not meant to be eaten daily.

About the Author

Michelle is a Registered Dietitian (MSc.), nutrition educator, media personality, and the founder of NUTRILICIOUS, a B2B nutrition consultancy and communications company that aspires to inspire millions across Asia to eat their way to healthier and happier lives. Michelle and her team passionately motivate all audiences to Eat Whole, Train Smart, Live Full and deliver science-based nutrition information in fun and “digestible” ways. As an avid runner and obsessive home baker, she appreciates and prioritizes balance in all areas of life. “Change the world, One bite at a time.

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Header image courtesy of Beyond Meat.

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