Plant-Based Meat: Healthy Option or Vegan Junk Food?

Plant-based meat comes in many forms, some healthier than others.

A man eating a plant-based burger.

Explainer Food Innovations

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Plant-based meat is rapidly growing in popularity. But despite all the buzz and questions about its longevity, plant-based meat isn’t actually anything new. In fact, it has been around for decades — and arguably, centuries.

Still, the plant-based meat industry has come a long way in recent years, with global plant-based meat sales reaching $6.1 billion by 2022.

Here’s what you need to know about plant-based meat: what it’s made of, whether it’s healthy and where it may be headed.

What is Plant-Based Meat?

Plant-based meat is an animal-free alternative to meats made of animal parts. Some of the most popular types of plant-based meat are made to replace hamburgers, hot dogs, ground meat, nuggets, deli slices and much more. Plant-based meat is different from  cultivated meat, which is made from animal cells, and has not yet reached mass market the way plant-based meat has.

When Did Plant-Based Meat Come About?

Although people may consider plant-based meats to be  a relatively new invention, the earliest ones are actually centuries old. The creation of tofu was some 2,000 years ago, when a Chinese prince, Liu An, stumbled upon it while trying to make an elixir. Other meat alternatives like seitan are also ancient, with Buddhist monks in Asia developing the foodstuff centuries ago.

Although early meat alternatives may have started in China, they ultimately spread around the world. Over time, people have developed different sorts of plant-based meats in various places.

In the early 20th Century, Protose — a wheat-based meat alternative — was developed at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium. The food company Quorn, meanwhile, started selling its fungi-based mycoprotein in the 1980s.

What is Plant-Based Meat Actually Made of?

There are many types of foods available for making plant-based meat. Here is a list of the most common core ingredients:

How Is Plant-Based Meat Produced?

Since plant-based meat is produced from plants, these plants first have to be grown. Plant ingredients are then processed in factories, like other foodstuffs are.

Processing foods means modifying them in some way. The Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) list of how food is processed includes washing, mixing, cooling, heating, fermenting, drying, packaging and several other operations, like extrusion.

In other words, most food is subject to some form of processing, including meat-based products.

Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?

Many people think of veganism and plant-based eating as a much healthier lifestyle. While many studies back up the benefits of adopting a plant-rich diet, simply going plant-based isn’t a guarantee that you will automatically be healthy.

It is very possible to follow a plant-based diet and mainly eat whole foods that provide all of the nutrients you need for optimal health. But junk food also exists in the plant-based world.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, for example, produce delicious plant-based meat alternatives. While replacing red meat with these vegan options helps reduce your risk of heart disease and other ailments associated with eating animal products, these meat alternatives in and of themselves are not exactly “health foods,” and they aren’t healthier than, say, lentils or fresh vegetables.

The Benefits of Plant-Based Meat Are Varied

It’s important to keep in mind that here are various reasons why people opt to eat plant-based meat. Some people choose plant-based to reduce animal suffering while others do it for the environment, and still others do it purely for health reasons.

A Healthier Dietary Choice

A typical Western meat-heavy diet has been linked to a number of potential health risks, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Indeed, the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission highlighted that analysis has associated consumption of processed red meat with an “increased risk of death from any cause.”

By comparison, a plant-based diet can be very healthy, if the person pays attention to what they are eating. A 2022 perspective paper argued that, in terms of plant-based meat versus real meat, “soy-based meats and soymilk compare favorably with their animal-based counterparts nutritionally.” Another paper, published in the Future Foods journal, also found that plant-based alternatives are healthier than animal products. It said the alternatives “present a number of benefits, including generally favorable nutritional profiles, aiding weight loss and muscle synthesis, and catering to specific health conditions.”

Reduced Environmental Impact

Broadly speaking, plant-based foods have less environmental impact than animal-based foods. Animal agriculture is associated with many environmental harms, including high greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water pollution.

Some plant-based foods are also associated with environmental damage. Soy is a prime example, as a food that is heavily linked to deforestation. However, this link itself exists because of animal agriculture: 77 percent of global soy production is grown to feed  farmed animals.

Meanwhile, some plant crops, such as pulses, provide environmental benefits. They can improve soil health, as they have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria and help to improve biodiversity in soils.

Plant-based diets also involve more efficient use of land. Plants provide 63 percent of the global community’s protein, using only 23 percent of agricultural land. By comparison, animal agriculture uses 77 percent of farming land — but supplies only 37 percent of the world’s protein.

Better Treatment of Animals

Ensuring that farm animals are treated well involves making sure they can enjoy certain freedoms, such as the ability to express their natural behaviors and live a life without pain. Factory farms do not provide animals with these freedoms. On the contrary, pain (physical and emotional) and confinement are commonplace.

Increasingly, food companies are using marketing to claim that the farm animals sourced for their products were “humanely-raised” by pointing to an array of certification programs. While these programs have varying standards and little oversight, they may alleviate at least some suffering of farmed animals in comparison to factory farms with no certification in place.

Lower Saturated Fat Intake

Some plant foods like lentils are lower in saturated fats than meat and dairy products, while providing a source of essential amino acids. Since some studies have linked saturated fats to an increased risk of cancer and heart issues, lowering your intake can help improve your health, especially when part of a well-rounded, plant-rich diet.

 Cholesterol Reduction

Cholesterol is naturally produced by animals to fulfill certain functions. When people consume animal products, it can increase their cholesterol levels, leading to various health conditions, particularly in relation to the heart.

Plants do not contain cholesterol, so eating plant-based foods means that you are not adding any more cholesterol to your body through food. Moreover, plants contain soluble fibers that help to lower cholesterol levels.

Where Does Plant-Based Meat Fit in the Alt-Protein Landscape?

The Good Food Institute (GFI) describes plant-based meat as “the cornerstone of alternative proteins” due both to its long culinary history and its expanded diversity in more recent times.

Moving forward, innovation in some directions, such as embracing pulses as the basis for alternative protein products, could promise economic opportunities for developing countries that have not had a large role in the plant-based meat sector to date.

The Future of Plant-Based Meat

Despite how profoundly factory farming impacts our environment, we have seen limited scientific research and public investment in the plant-based meat sector, especially as compared to sectors like clean energy. As a result, climate groups like the Breakthrough Institute have called for increased public funding in research and development to produce plant-based meat that appeals to people who typically eat animal-derived meats.

Another area driving innovation in the alternative protein sectors is the hybridization of plant-based proteins with other ingredients, including fungi and products derived from cellular agriculture. The Institute of Food Technologists, meanwhile, has highlighted seaweed and algae, lenteins (water lentils) and hemp as among the newer options for plant-based proteins. Potatoes also appear to be entering the limelight when it comes to innovative plant-based meats and other foodstuffs, such as potato milk and spud ice-cream.

Though private investments in the plant-based industry have certainly cooled overall in the past few years, with companies like Beyond Meat reporting losses, a number of recent market research reports predict the plant-based meat sector will continue to grow significantly over the coming years.

The Bottom Line

While there are definitely certain health benefits to switching from animal meat to plant-based meat, many plant-based meat products are not as healthy as whole-food options like beans and lentils. Instead, they exist to give people an alternative to popular foods sourced with meat raised on factory farms that have a steep environmental footprint.

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