Are Meat Alternatives Healthier Than the Real Deal?
From falafels to burgers made from coconut pulp, meat substitutes have been around for a very long time — like 965 A.D.! — and in this day and age, there are pressures to consider these options for personal physical health reasons, animal sentience and even planetary sustainability.
Whatever your reason is for being curious about fake meat, we’re here to answer your burning questions. No, the burning won’t smell like bacon, but who knows? You might like tofurkey just as well. Take a look!
What Is a Meat Alternative?
Meat alternatives in America have been around since 1896 when John Harvey Kellogg created a "meatless meat" made out of peanuts. He also popularized cereal as a meatless option for breakfast. Kellogg’s motivation was his religion, but people today have many reasons to seriously consider meat alternatives.
1931: Winston Churchill’s Prediction
In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote an essay called "Fifty Years Hence." In it, he described a future in which the human race would find a way to manufacture selected pieces of an animal that were desired by the public instead of having to grow the entire animal, which he found ridiculous.
1933: Loma Linda Foods
In 1933, an ambitious and inventive group of Seventh-day Adventists founded Loma Linda Foods, which manufactured some of the first meat alternatives. These meatless foods were made out of soy and wheat and were commercially available to the public.
1937: The Zoyburger
Madison Foods of Tennessee produced and distributed the earliest known meatless burger in the United States. China had known about tofu (doufu in Chinese) since 965 A.D., and they called the food "mock lamb chops." America was a little slower on the uptake and waited almost an entire millennium before soy caught on.
1941: Choplets Become a Thing
In the fall of 1941, Special Foods (founded by Dr. George T. Harding III) launched the meatless food named "Choplets" in Ohio. The product was successful, and the company went on to produce many more meat alternatives. It was renamed Worthington Foods, Inc., in 1945, which is the name many people recognize as a leading maker of vegetarian foods today.
1967: Discovery of Fusarium Venenatum
The discovery of the high-protein fungus Fusarium venenatum was significant, and after 12 years of intensive testing, it was approved for human consumption by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food in the U.K. Today, the high-protein fungus is mass-produced, mixed with egg albumin and incorporated into many products.
1981: Gardenburgers Emerge
One day in 1981, a vegetarian restaurateur in Oregon named Paul Wenner took leftover vegetables, rolled oats and rice pilaf and molded them into — Gardenburgers! Wenner incorporated his company as Wholesome & Hearty Foods, Inc., in 1985 but filed for bankruptcy in 2005. In 2007, the Kellogg Company bought Wholesome & Hearty Foods.
Eating Meat Is Linked to a Shorter Lifespan
JAMA Internal Medicine confirmed four years ago that eating red meat is linked to a higher risk of death. One Green Planet reported, "Specifically, a 10% increase in animal protein intake was linked to a 2% increase in overall mortality and an 8% increase in the risk of cardiovascular-related death."
Meat Alternatives Get a Bad Rap
During wartime in the United States, the use of meat alternatives was repeatedly touted as second-rate, even as the government encouraged people — sometimes even mandated through rationing — to eat less meat. Eating less meat was seen as a punishment of sorts, which didn’t help the proponents of "nut meat" during WWI.
Diet for a Small Planet
When the 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Lappe came out, people seemed thrilled that vegetarianism was back in fashion. However, the soy products available at the time were pretty terrible tasting and not widely available to the public.
1994: Quorn Is Invented
Although Quorn’s products are still being sold today — the company actually enjoyed 16% growth globally last year — critics say these products are "ultra-processed" and a far cry from "natural" and "plant-based." Quorn boasts patronage and endorsements from Olympian Mo Farah, broadcaster Ben Fogle and soccer player Jermain Defoe.
1995: Tofurkey Hits the Market
The same student who asserted that soy grit burgers tasted "horrible and digested worse" embarked on his own journey to create a better tasting soy meat alternative. He tried tempeh in the 1980s but decided it wasn’t very profitable because basically no one was interested in plant-based foods.
The Power of Protein
Gardenburger's Veggie Burger has 5g of protein, which is 10g less than a beef patty, but it also has less than half the calories of beef and less than one-third of the saturated fat. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommends approximately 50g of protein daily for the average person.
How Do Boca Burgers Measure Up?
Keep in mind that one 8-ounce steak is more protein than your body needs for the day. You can get protein from meat or meat substitutes, but remember that nuts, whole grains and beans are great sources of protein too.
Meat the Alternative
Meat the Alternative was founded by a butcher who wanted to make a versatile, better-tasting vegan meat. It offers inventive vegan products, such as Beef Style Deli Slices and Blue Cheese Porcini Quarter Pounder Burgers. The health negative of these products is that while they're creative, they are also highly processed.
The Impossible Whopper
In one of the most successful Burger King rollouts in history, Burger King came up with a plant-based burger it calls the Impossible Whopper and marketed it starting in the summer of 2019. The Impossible Whopper did well at many of the 7,200 Burger King locations in the United States.
The Beyond Burger
The Beyond Burger looks and tastes just like beef — some even say that it "bleeds." It is available at upscale restaurants around the country as well as some fast food and other chain restaurants like TGI Fridays. This burger is cruelty-free, plant-based and available at Target.
Alzheimer's Risk Increases with Eating Red Meat
Researchers from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that eating too much red meat raises levels of iron in the brain. As a result, it could heighten the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Erectile Dysfunction Linked to Meat Eating
It’s no secret that erectile dysfunction affects millions of men, but what may be a well-kept secret is that meat eating has been linked to impotence. PETA reported that one study showed "…as many as half of men over...age of 40 are impotent at least [sometimes]."
Meat Alternatives and Sodium
Unfortunately, in order to make meat alternatives taste good, some manufacturers really pack in the salt, which can be dangerous for your health. The American Heart Association caps the high limit of sodium per day at 2,300mg but says that somewhere around 1,500mg per day is ideal for most adults.
Animal-Based Foods Cause High Cholesterol
It is commonly known that higher than normal levels of cholesterol can lead to heart disease from clogged arteries. It is less well known that cholesterol only comes from animal-derived foods, such as meat, lard, oils, etc. If you practice a vegan diet, you will effectively consume zero cholesterol.
Meat Is as Risky as Sugar for Your Health
A doctoral student at the University of Adelaide found conclusively that meat contributes to the prevalence of obesity worldwide to the same extent as sugar. According to the research, meat proteins are digested later than carbohydrates and fats, making a surplus of energy from protein.
Meat Eating Is a Risk Factor for Diabetes
Eating meat, according to researchers, is "one of the most well-established dietary risk factors for diabetes." Even a small amount of red meat in your diet, particularly processed meats, increases your risk of Type 2 Diabetes to a startling degree.
Processed Meats Increase Cancer Risk
The World Health Organization put processed meats — bacon, hot dogs, bologna — in the same cancer risk category as cigarettes and asbestos in 2015, creating some alarm. Many past studies have gotten the same results — all meats could lead to cancer.
Heart Disease Is Correlated with Eating Meat
A 2013 study conducted by Oxford University on 45,500 participants found that a vegetarian diet reduces a person’s risk of heart disease by up to 32%. This study tracked volunteers for 11 years to come to this conclusion.
Are Fake Meats Highly Processed?
The major problem with fake burgers, chicken nuggets and the like is that these foods are often highly processed to transform them. Consider some of the ingredients in the Beyond Burger: "...pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum Arabic…"
Is Eating Animals Bad for Mental Health?
Christine Korsgaard is a Professor at Harvard University. In 2014, she said that we don’t have the right to kill animals. She said, "Can we still imagine ourselves as a natural link in a chain of life when there is nothing natural about the way we raise and eat our food?"
Ethical Considerations of Eating Meat
When thinking about the ethics of killing and eating animals, especially with the advent of factory farming, one key argument is that the animals’ pain and suffering are guaranteed. The chickens never scratched in the dirt, and those baby cows never frolicked in the springtime grass. In fact, most of them never saw grass or even the sun.
A question has come up recently about whether or not it’s ethical to intentionally breed animals with anencephaly (lacking most of a brain) for food consumption. While this sounds horrifying, some argue that it removes the ethical question of sentience, pain and suffering, and autonomy in meat farming.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that meat and most meat alternatives can be bad for your health. This is why experts are recommending that if you stop eating meat for health reasons, you should skip most of the meat alternatives and simply eat plants.