Food trends come and go but one, in particular, looks like it’s here to stay: plant-based meat substitutes. These trendy, new alternative meat options are food scientists’ latest attempt to improve our diets and protect our planet simultaneously.1 They aim to help self-proclaimed meat lovers learn how to follow a more plant-based diet without feeling deprived, as well as reduce our reliance on mass-farmed livestock that burdens land, depletes our water supply, racks up carbon emissions and more.
Sounds pretty magical, right?
Here’s everything you need to know about the mystery that is plant-based meat and plant-based fish—how it’s made, its nutritional value and the impact it could have on our future food culture and environmental footprint.
What Exactly is Plant-Based Meat & Plant-Based Fish?
Plant based-meat and plant-based fish products forego common animal proteins like cow, pig and tuna for proprietary blends of plant-based proteins, fats, flavorings and binders. Food engineers have experimented with the quantities of each of these ingredients to create food products that mimic the look, texture and taste of classic burgers, meatballs, taco meat, sausages and packaged tuna.2 Many of these products also remain gluten-free and non-GMO, making them safe for people with various food sensitivities, preferences or dietary restrictions.
How are Plant-Based Meat & Plant-Based Fish Products Made?
It depends on the manufacturer, as each plant-based meat and plant-based fish brand on the market today uses a unique recipe.3,4,5,6 Plant-based proteins used in these products can include any combination of pea protein, rice protein, mung bean protein, soy protein, wheat protein, potato protein, lentil protein, faba protein, mycoprotein, chickpea flour and navy bean flour. And the fat sources used typically include any combination of coconut oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, canola oil and cocoa butter.
To mimic a meaty or fishy flavor, some brands use fermented yeast or yeast extract. Paired with the proper seasonings, such as garlic powder, onion powder, chives, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and other spices, the flavor of the plant-based meat and fish can be pretty convincing. Finally, food engineers select binding agents like methylcellulose (a culinary binder commonly found in ice cream, sauces and jams) and potato starch to hold everything together. Many red meat alternatives add a little beet or pomegranate powder as well to create the juicy burger effect many consumers desire.
Is it Healthier Than the Real Thing?
Many dietitians commend people for consciously reducing their reliance on animal meat—especially red meat, which has been linked to various health issues when consumed frequently—and they believe that plant-based meat and fish are a step in the right direction.7 However, they still shouldn’t be viewed as a “health food.”
A lot of plant-based burger options on the market today contain amounts of saturated fat and sodium (two things the average American diet needs to reduce) comparable to traditional beef burgers. And the “plant-based” terminology surrounding these products and their advertising tends to create a “health halo” effect, which can lead to overconsumption as people assume these alternative products are a lot healthier than they actually are.8
Why It Matters
While many plant-based meat and plant-based fish products on the market today aren’t necessarily glimmering examples of nutrition, it’s still important that they exist and that food scientists are searching for more sustainable ways for us to get enough protein in our daily diets. Yes, these products should be consumed in moderation to maintain optimal health, but every time you choose a plant-based product over an animal-derived option, your decision has positive implications outside of your own body.
More than half of our global greenhouse gas emissions are driven by livestock rearing and processing, and we use approximately 45% of our global surface area for livestock systems.9 So the more plant-based choices you make in your everyday diet, the less you contribute to this major environmental footprint as an individual.
And remember that a plant-based diet is ideally loaded with whole foods rather than processed foods. You can have the same positive impact on the planet and fare even better health-wise if you opt for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds at every meal. It’s okay to mimic meat when the cravings strike, but plant-based meat and fish alternatives don’t need to be the focal point of every plate.
If you found this article to be helpful, you might also enjoy Eating Healthy on a Budget: 12 Tips to Keep You & Your Wallet Fit and 4 Must-Try Protein Powder Recipes Made with Real Food Protein . Also, be sure to sign up for Swanson Health Emails to get expert wellness advice and our best promotions in your inbox.
About Lindsey Bristol, MS, RD
Registered Dietitian, Swanson Health Products
Lindsey is a nationally-recognized registered dietitian and nutritionist with a soft spot for pie. She empowers people to take charge of their health by finding the balance between the pleasure and nourishment in food.
Her philosophy is that you should take care of your body because it’s the only permanent home you have. It’s what inspired her to pursue a career in nutrition and, ultimately, led her to Swanson Health Products.
1 Has Fake Meat Reached a Tipping Point? All of a Sudden, Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Are Everywhere. Inc. https://www.inc.com/peter-economy/has-fake-meat-reached-a-tipping-point-all-of-a-sudden-plant-based-meat-alternatives-are-everywhere.html
2 Clean Meat vs. Plant-Based Meat: What You Need to Know About Sustainable Burgers. Food & Wine. https://www.foodandwine.com/news/clean-lab-grown-meat-plant-based-burger
3 Impossible Foods. https://impossiblefoods.com/food/
4 Beyond Meat. https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/
5 Plant-Based Burger. LightLife. https://lightlife.com/product/plant-based-burger/
6 Plant Based Tuna. Good Catch. https://goodcatchfoods.com/product-cat/plant-based-tuna/
7 Are Beyond Meat’s plant-based burgers healthier than red meat? Dietitians say no. CNBC.
8 Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and the plant-based burger of the summer. Here are the diet facts you need to know. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/04/beyond-meat-impossible-foods-and-the-diet-truth-of-the-summer-burger.html
9 Why Build Meat Directly From Plants? Beyond Meat. https://www.beyondmeat.com/about/
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.