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December 5, 2019

Is 'fake meat' actually healthy? Here's what the research says.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 17, 2023.

    Spurred by the growing popularity of plant-based meat substitutes, stakeholders in the meat industry are pushing back against what they call "ultra-processed imitations"—and health experts are cautioning against any quick endorsements of the new products, Anahad O'Connor reports for the New York Times.

    Cheat sheets: Evidence-based medicine 101

    Growth in popularity leads to ads against plant-based meat

    In recent years, the plant-based burger industry has gone mainstream, with fast food chains like Burger King and KFC offering plant-based meat options.

    According to Darren Seifer, an analyst at market research firm NPD Group, 90% of customers purchasing plant-based meats are meat-eaters who believe the products are healthier and better for the environment.

    "The two big brands, Beyond [Meat] and Impossible, have replicated the burger experience without having to sacrifice the taste of the burger," Seifer said. "So now a lot of consumers feel like they have a healthier option, they are reducing the amount of meat they consume, and they just feel better about that."

    But recently the meat industry has been pushing back. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a public relations firm supported in part by the meat and food industry, recently released a series of ads that characterize plant-based meat products as "ultra-processed imitations." One ad asks the question, "What's hiding in your plant-based meat?"

    In addition, the Center's managing director, Will Coggin, in November wrote an opinion piece in USA Today saying plant-based meats are ultra-processed foods that can cause weight gain—although O'Connor notes that "research on processed foods has not included plant-based meats." Then just days later, Rick Berman, the Center's executive director, wrote a separate opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, echoing the idea that plant-based meat substitutes are highly processed and not any healthier an option than meat.

    But Impossible Foods, the manufacturer of a popular plant-based burger, said the Center's campaign was misleading and fear-mongering, adding that it's a sign that the company's mission to disrupt the meat industry is working. "It's a point of pride to have that organization come after us. It's hard to imagine a stronger endorsement," said Pat Brown, the company's CEO.

    Are plant-based meats healthier?

    So what does the research say? According to O'Connor, Impossible and Beyond burgers are made with somewhat similar combinations of plant products, such as pea protein, coconut and canola oils, potato starch and rice protein, or proteins from soy and potato. And overall, when compared with a beef burger, the plant-based burgers are similar in protein and calories but contain less saturated fat and no cholesterol—although they do have about four times the amount of sodium of a beef burger.

    However, there's been little research on the subject to date. While research suggests that eating less red meat and more nuts, legumes, and other plant-based foods has health benefits, such as lower chronic disease risk and mortality, a recent JAMA report did not find conclusive benefits. Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who worked on the report, said the researchers were unable to determine whether processed burgers that rely on soy and pea protein offer the same benefits as eating more legumes and less red meat.

    Hu said that studies are currently underway on whether plant-based burgers are a healthier alternative to regular meat burgers independent of any sides.

    For now, Hu said he considers plant-based meats as "transitional foods" for people trying to adopt a healthier diet. But, he noted, that depends on how you eat it. For example, Hu explained that eating a plant-based hamburger offers no dietary benefits if you pair it with a traditional burger's typical sides: French fries and a soda.

    Brown added that Impossible's mission isn't to convince consumers that their plant-based burgers are the most nutritious food, but rather to persuade them to eat an Impossible Burger rather than a "cow burger."

    "The niche that this fills is not the same niche that a kale salad fills," Brown said. "If you're hungry for a burger, and you want something that's better for you and better for the planet that delivers everything you want from a burger, then this is a great product. But if you're hungry for a salad, eat a salad" (O'Connor, New York Times, 12/3).

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