The imitation meat movement: Real vs. imitation, what is better?
Fake meat has made a lot of headlines recently but is it really a better choice?
Imitation meat has become a new phenomenon but much of it is highly processed food and serves as a poor substitute for conventional meat products. What are some of the pros and cons of these fake meats?
Let’s talk about meat. I love it but not everyone does and not everyone needs meat to be healthy. What about fake meat? Is it better than the real stuff? Is imitation meat a good alternative or a scourge to our health? What are the pros and cons of each type of protein?
As with so much – the devil is in the details. I’ll start with traditional meat (from animals) as I am an unabashed omnivore. Meat can be a healthy part of a varied diet but quality and quantity matter a lot. Everyone knows the phrase that “we are what we eat” but it is equally important to remember we are also what we eat has eaten. This refers primarily to how our animal products are raised. Eating cows fed grass (healthy greens and what they have evolved to eat) is different than eating cows that were fed grain (more inflammatory fats and not particularly good for cows). Wild-caught fish subsist on a traditional diet of kelp or krill or other ocean life. Some farm-raised fish are actually fed grains – like cows, this is not what they have evolved to thrive on. The same goes for chicken, turkey, eggs, pork, etc. Grass-fed (and grass-finished) meat is healthier than grain-fed meat and so the cost difference is worth it. I frequently tell my patients that eating a smaller portion of a grass-fed or wild-caught animal product is better than eating a large portion of grain-fed animals. Going for a smaller portion of the former helps balance out the price difference.
Animal products (meat, eggs, fish) are the absolute best source for B12, iron and healthy cholesterol. Vegans can get B12 from nutritional yeast, supplements or algae but one way or another, they have to work to attain it. The same is true for iron – red meat is by far the best source for this essential nutrient. We can get iron from spinach, beans, molasses and other non-meat sources but the form is harder for the body to use than animal-sourced iron. So, the nutritional aspect is another compelling reason to favor a varied diet which includes some amount of animal products. I am not a proponent of the carnivore diet; I think humans do best with a sensible amount of variety. My typical plate recommendation is half vegetable, ¼ protein and ¼ fruit and complex starches with healthy fats drizzled and sprinkled as appropriate.
Now, with the imitation meat craze growing, how do these products stack up to animal products? Back to those pesky details we go. I have worked with patients who are vegan for a wide variety of reasons including economic, environmental, health, religious and moral. First of all, as mentioned above, there are several macro and micronutrients they must be diligent to obtain: cholesterol, protein, iron and B12. This applies particularly to vegans and somewhat to vegetarians. And what about someone swapping out their hamburger for a Beyond or Impossible burger? Overall, I do not see it as much of a boon to the eater. Imitation meats are a highly processed food. Many of these brands contain upwards of 15-18 ingredients to create this franken-meat. I would discourage my patients from consuming anything that has been processed to appear like another food and contains such a long ingredient list. Food processing tends to remove nutrients in order to increase shelf life and profit for the parent company. Some of them do try to add in nutrients that otherwise are lacking in a vegan diet – like B12 and iron so I will give them credit for that.
Nutritionally, a lot of processed imitation meats rely on wheat, grains and soy as the base for their product. Soy carries a few unique challenges. Most of the soy in the US is genetically modified and produced using a large number of pesticides. Consuming too much soy can also be bad for your health – in high amounts soy acts like estrogen in the body.
Bottom line, fake meats may be a fun way to try out a vegetarian option at a restaurant but do not fool yourself into thinking it is a healthy decision. These imitation meat options may be a way to transition toward eating more vegetables and limiting consumption of meat products but they are not a marked improvement if that is the only dietary modification being made. For better health, emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, home-cooked meals, high-quality ingredients and the least processed options possible. There is a way to go vegan or vegetarian and be healthier and there is a way to do it and be less healthy. The former looks like making your own alternative foods – like veggie burger patties made from black beans with spices and a binder like bread crumbs or eggs. Few ingredients, easy to make at home and a healthier option. The latter looks like eating processed foods that substitute for unhealthy things you liked to eat: burgers, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, etc.