Are Meat Alternatives Healthier Than the Real Deal?

By Jake Schroeder
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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.

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In short, there are two kinds of fake meat: Meat made entirely out of plants and plant proteins, and meat grown in a laboratory from stem cells extracted from a living animal and then cultured. Obviously, the latter is much closer to being "real" meat than plant-based fake meats.

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.

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Churchill sounded crazy, but he was right. We can grow a piece of meat out of a single extracted cell in a laboratory setting. Mr. Churchill did not address the sentience of animals, personal health or environmental concerns, however. He just seemed to have faith that we would figure it out.

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.

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Seventh-day Adventists believe that the body is a temple and should only be fed healthy types of foods; hence, they are vegetarian or vegan. In the Christian Holy Bible, several types of meat are deemed "unclean," including pork, camel, hare and rock badger. The blood of animals as well as meat from animals sacrificed to idols is also forbidden.

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.

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The American burger was originally called "Soybean Meat" in 1922, but in 1939, the company renamed it the Zoyburger. Madison Foods successfully set the stage for wheat gluten and soy to be the go-to ingredients in producing meat-alternative foods for years to come.

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.

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Harding’s values were based on his religion, and he started production of meat alternatives in a world dominated by farming. His business started with his wife, Mary Virginia, and four other investors in a fire-damaged house. Harding and his colleagues took action and enacted change.

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.

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Studies on Fusarium venenatum have proven that some beneficial health gains go with consumption. Eating the fungus as a replacement for meat significantly reduces blood cholesterol and calorie intake per meal. (We're sure the farm animals appreciated humans eating this mycoprotein instead of them as well.)

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.

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Today, the company makes many vegetarian and vegan foods, including the vegan Veggie Medley Burger, Original Burger, Black Bean Chipotle Burger (vegan) and Sun-Dried Tomato Basil Burger (vegetarian). The Wholesome & Hearty Foods Company remains a subsidiary of Kellogg Company today.

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."

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The lead researcher in the study, Dr. Mingyang Song, who works at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health "…clarified that they are not 100% sure exactly what it is in meat that causes this increase in mortality…"

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Clarke & Sherwell, Ltd; Ministry of Food/Wikimedia Commons

Wholegrain bread was even suggested as a meat-alternative, on the basis that it has a higher protein content than white bread. People were understandably irritated and unconvinced, and when the war was over, "meatless and low-meat" diets decreased dramatically.

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.

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Seth Tibbott was a college student in Ohio at the time who was convinced to convert to a vegetarian diet. This is what he had to say about the available meat alternatives: "They tasted horrible, but they digested worse. I was very keen to find a soy product that digested well and tasted good."

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.

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Although Quorn products tend to taste exactly like meat, and some people find the two indistinguishable, health experts have warned that Quorn products are essentially just another highly processed junk food. Quorn has more than 100 products, ranging from mince and sausages to cranberry escalopes and [fake] goat cheese.

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.

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In 1995, he successfully created a turkey substitute with Thanksgiving in mind that was made from tofu and wheat protein. Tofurkey turned out to be a booming success and made its way into American culture, paving the way for the Beyond Burger today.

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.

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Protein is an important part of everyone's diet because it’s in every cell of our bodies. Our hair and nails are made of protein, and it helps to repair tissues. Fat, carbohydrates and protein are all considered macronutrients because our bodies need a large amount of them to survive.

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.

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The original Boca Burger has a whopping 13g of protein in each patty, which is impressively close to the 15g in a beef patty. A Boca Burger patty also has 10% of your iron for the day as well as 16% of your recommended dietary fiber intake. The patties only have 1g of fat but contain 450mg of sodium.

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.

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Meat the Alternative's Beef Style Mince (ground beef alternative) has only 89 calories per serving while providing 6g of carbohydrates and 19g of protein, which is 4g more than actual ground beef. However, this food is high in sodium and packs in 700mg of sodium per serving.

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.

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Some are calling this event the catalyst for "a new era in fast food," in which people are healthier and eco-conscious and want to do their part for the good of mankind and the planet. We’re not saying that the Impossible Whopper has saved the world — yet.

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.

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When Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, wrote The Superfood Swap and was asked about the Beyond Burger, she said, "If you’re a vegetarian who occasionally wants…a juicy burger, these are great…but it’s not actually healthier for you." It is noteworthy that Jackson was only talking about the Beyond Burger.

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.

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Iron accelerates the damaging reactions of free radicals, and over time, it builds up in the gray matter of the brain, which contributes to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other age-related illnesses. The number one risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age, of course, which none of us can possibly avoid, but we can avoid eating red meat.

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]."

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Furthermore, only 10% of erectile dysfunction can be attributed to anxiety, which is much lower than previously thought. That means 90% of all cases are purely physical, like having high cholesterol, obesity, prostate cancer or diabetes. All of these conditions can be managed and even prevented in some cases with a vegan diet.

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.

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For instance, Boca Original Meatless Chik’n Nuggets have one-third of your ideal daily sodium intake in one serving. It is very important to look at the label if you’re buying meat alternatives, because some of them are not actually good for your health in other ways.

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.

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Protecting your heart and arteries with your diet choices is extremely important. When you combine the risks of all the meat-based health problems out there, it hardly seems right to willfully put yourself at risk of something as dangerous as coronary artery disease.

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.

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When the human body has a surplus of energy, it stores it as fat deposits. This interesting and compelling study found that almost 13% of worldwide obesity is directly correlated to the widespread availability of meat, especially in developed countries. In America, it isn’t uncommon to have meat at every meal.

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.

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Type 2 Diabetes can cause a vast array of secondary health problems, such as blindness, heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure, all of which are potentially debilitating. Studies done with Seventh-day Adventists, who are wholly vegetarian, found that a person can actually reverse and cure their diabetes with a vegan diet.

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.

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One previous study actually found that women who eat more than 1.5 servings of red meat per day effectively increased their risk of developing breast cancer by a whopping 22%. According to the CDC, breast cancer is across the board the most common kind of cancer among women, aside from certain skin cancers.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: NIH: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute/Wikimedia Commons

The lead researcher on this study, Dr. Francesca Crowe, postulated that this is due to the low cholesterol/low blood pressure combination that is common among vegetarians. This is a significant reduction in risk. Among participants aged 50 to 70, 6.8% of meat eaters were hospitalized or died from heart disease compared to only 4.6% of vegetarians.

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…"

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Photo Courtesy: Maasaak/Wikimedia Commons

This is an issue because the main reason Americans are seeking meat alternatives is for health benefits, according to surveys, but there is nothing particularly healthy about a highly processed vegan sausage that is packed with salt. Therefore, experts are recommending sticking with foods that are not processed, like actual plants.

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?"

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Photo Courtesy: Mercy for Animals/Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Korsgaard says that the bond of "solidarity" with animals is important. We don’t see or think about a cow when we look at a steak, essentially. She alleges that factory farming is a shameful "bloodbath of cruelty" and that it’s not good for us as a society.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Compassion Over Killing/Wikimedia Commons

Today, male chickens are ground alive, females have their beaks burned off with no anesthesia and they live their entire lives in a space the size of half a sheet of standard notebook paper in filthy, smelly, torturous conditions, churning out eggs to satisfy humans, who don’t need to eat them. Not a pretty picture.

Frankenlamb

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities/Wikimedia Commons

Anencephaly is rare naturally, and the argument is that those animals would effectively be "incapable of suffering," according to an article on practical ethics put out by Oxford University in 2012. Sentience is defined as the ability to subjectively feel and perceive. It’s an interesting theory, but how would we prove that those animals could not?

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.

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If you're worried about your protein intake, you can pack in the protein by eating legumes like beans, peas and lentils. Legumes are cheap and have 18g of protein per cup, not to mention all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Happily, they are sodium-, additive- and preservative-free.