Plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) have come a long way, with novel PBMAs aiming to accurately mimic the taste and texture of meat, but how do they measure nutritionally? This article gives an overview of the health and environmental effects of PBMAs, comparing them to meat products.
Nutrition and Health
PBMAs work well as meat alternatives in that they tend to have similar amounts of protein as meat.1–4 However, there can be substantial differences in protein between certain meat products and PBMAs; for instance, one study found that plant-based chicken nuggets had a much lower protein content compared to regular chicken nuggets (10.17g/100g vs. 15.56g/100g).4
In general, PBMAs have a higher dietary fiber content than meat products,1–6 which is expected, given that they’re plant-based. Additionally, many PBMAs have a lower energy content than meat products.1,3–5
Data on the saturated fat content of PBMAs is mixed, with some research showing that PBMAs tend to have a lower saturated fat content, and other research demonstrating that PBMAs have similar or higher levels of saturated fat.1,4–6 One factor that contributes to higher saturated fat in PBMAs is the inclusion of fats and oils (e.g., coconut oil) to improve the texture of the product.2,4
Research has shown that sodium levels are often high in PBMAs.1–4,6 The sodium content in plant-based hamburgers can range from about 330mg/100g to 610mg/100g, which is much higher than the 72mg/100g found in cooked 93% lean ground beef. Other PBMAs with high sodium are comparable to the product they are mimicking. One study reported that plant-based beef meatballs had about 3mg/100g more sodium than traditional meatballs, and plant-based chicken nuggets had somewhat lower, although still high, sodium than traditional chicken nuggets (449.15mg/100g vs. 522.22mg/100g).4
PBMAs often lack adequate amounts of vitamin B12 and zinc.1,7 Iron levels can be similar between PBMAs and meat products,1,2,4 but iron uptake might be limited due to the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron, which is found in plants, compared to heme iron, which is found in animal products.1,7 However, non-heme iron uptake can be increased when eaten alongside vitamin C,7 and soy leghemoglobin has a similar bioavailability to heme iron and can be added to PBMAs. Although further research is needed, current evidence indicates that soy leghemoglobin poses no toxicological concerns.4,7
One interesting study assessed differences between an omnivore diet and various plant-based diets, including some with higher proportions of novel PBMA consumption; fortified foods and supplements were excluded. Overall, the authors found that adopting a novel vegetarian or vegan diet could lead to slightly higher sugar intake, increased levels of saturated fat and sodium, and significantly decreased levels of vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.8
It is important to note that there is variation between brands and products of PBMAs, so always check the nutrition label to get an accurate account of a food’s nutritional content.
Although traditional plant-based diets are known to have various health benefits, such as reduced risks of all-cause mortality, cancer, and chronic illnesses (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease),1,8–10 this information cannot be extrapolated to diets that largely feature novel PBMAs. There is a lack of sufficient long-term evidence to indicate that novel PBMAs impart the same health benefits as traditional plant-based foods.8 Many PBMAs are ultraprocessed foods (UPFs), which might lead to the loss of nutrients and phytochemicals.9 UPFs might also contain higher levels of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar,1,6 and they have been associated with increased risk of disease.8 However, processed foods are not inherently unhealthy, as some processed foods, like tofu and fortified food, are considered healthy, and more research needs to be done to elucidate the impact of UPFs, particularly PBMAs, on health.1,8
Current research shows that PBMAs have a smaller carbon footprint than beef and poultry.3,11 In the United States (US), PBMAs have been shown to have a much smaller carbon footprint than feedlot beef (which composed about 96% of all beef in the US), but they might have a similar or larger carbon footprint when compared to pasture-based livestock systems.7 Compared to less-processed plant foods, the production of PBMAs is more energy-intensive, and thus has a greater impact on the environment.3 Further research must be undertaken to better understand the full environmental impact of PBMAs.5
Aesthetically, PBMAs could serve as an adequate replacement for meat products, but nutritionally, they lack several key micronutrients and can contain higher levels of saturated fat and sodium. Consult with your primary care physician or a certified dietitian/nutritionist to determine the dietary plan that’s best for you.
- Flint M, Bowles S, Lynn A, Paxman JR. Novel plant-based meat alternatives: future opportunities and health considerations. Proc Nutr Soc. 2023;82(3):370–385.
- Northcutt JK. Plant-based meat alternatives and meat substitutes. Home & Garden Information Center: Clemson Cooperative Extension. 25 Jul 2022. https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/plant-based-meat-alternatives-and-meat-substitutes/. Accessed 25 Sep 2023.
- Vines B. The meat lovers’ guide to plant-based meat. Consumer Reports. Updated 28 Aug 2023. https://www.consumerreports.org/health/meat-substitutes/the-meat-lovers-guide-to-plant-based-meat-a1041127424/. Accessed 25 Sep 2023.
- Bohrer BM. An investigation of the formulation and nutritional composition of modern meat analogues. Food Sci Hum Well. 2019;8(4):320–329.
- Andreani G, Sogari G, Marti A, et al. Plant-based meat alternatives: technological, nutritional, environmental, market, and social challenges and opportunities. Nutrients. 2023;15(2):452.
- Lawler M. Are plant-based alternatives to meat actually healthier? Everyday Health. Reviewed 27 May 2022. https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/are-beyond-burgers-impossible-burgers-healthier-than-meat/. Accessed 25 Sep 2023.
- Van Vliet S, Kronberg SL, Provenza SD. Plant-based meats, human health, and climate change. Front Sustain Food Syst. 2020;4.
- Tso R, Forde CG. Unintended consequences: nutritional impact and potential pitfalls of switching from animal- to plant-based foods. Nutrients. 2021;13(8):2527.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Ask the expert: popular plant-based meat alternatives. 26 Aug 2019. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2019/08/26/questions-plant-based-meat-alternatives/. Accessed 25 Sep 2023.
- Alexander H. 5 benefits of a plant-based diet. MD Anderson Cancer Center. Nov 2019. https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/5-benefits-of-a-plant-based-diet.h20-1592991.html. Accessed 25 Sep 2023.
- Bryant CJ. Plant-based products are healthier and more environmentally sustainable than animal products. Future Foods. 2022;6:100174.