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Rise of the Impostors: What Runners Need to Know About Meatless Meats

They get a healthy cred, but are plant-based meat alternatives any better for you than the real stuff?

Protein is an essential part of a runner’s diet to help build muscles, bone and cartilage. Historically, we’ve turned to beef, chicken, pork and, to a lesser extent, fish for a big chunk of our daily intake of this macronutrient. But for health or environmental reasons, a rising number of people are turning to plants for their protein. Plant-based eating is trending, to say the least. 

And now a new breed of substitutes that better mimic the actual flavor and texture of animal flesh, but aren’t, are making it easier to eat plant-based fake-outs, both at home and in restaurants. Suddenly meatless meat products are ultra-popular and omnipresent, from mega-marts to fast-food drive-thrus to white-tablecloth restaurants. Are gas stations next? 

Meaty and savory “meatballs” gleaned from peas not beef, spicy “sausage” featuring millet and lentils, crispy nacho cheese “pork rinds” that ditch the hog for pea protein, breakfast burritos without an egg in sight, umami-rich mushroom “jerky,” breaded “chicken nuggets” featuring soy protein concentrate instead of the bird and even faux canned tuna that reels-in textured soy protein are among the rising tide of newfangled, plant-only meatless “meats” whose sales are rocketing upwards. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the biggest players, with the latter offering up a “ground beef” that bleeds – when soy leghemoglobin is cooked, it produces heme, the iron-rich compound that gives the “bleeding” effect similar to an old-fashioned beef burger. A not-so-big secret is that Beyond Meat has bacon minus the oink on their radar.    

Unlike faux meats of yore, the new generation of plant-based meat substitutes including burgers and sausages have a taste, texture and sizzle like the real deal, and won’t leave you pondering “where’s the beef.” If any meat alternatives are capable of converting carnivores, it’s these modern-day replicas. Bland-and-crumbly veggie burgers they are not. They’re convincing swaps, but are they any better for you and deserving of their health halo? It’s not as clear-cut as it seems.

What’s the Beef with Beefless?

A group of uncooked meat free plant-based burger patties in a kitchen in Russia.
Photographer: Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It would seem obvious that patties made of plants are a healthier option than a hamburger, right? After all, there’s plenty of evidence that eating more plants is associated with better health — and concurrent data that eating too much red meat is associated with higher risks of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

One recent study, albeit industry funded, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition did find that among a small group of adults consuming at least two daily servings of plant-based meat for 2-months, markers of cardiovascular health, including LDL cholesterol and trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, improved compared to when they ate at least two daily servings of meat, which was primarily in the form of red meat. It’s worth noting that this study did not show switching protein sources resulted in fewer cases of heart disease or what would happen if someone swapped out more beneficial animal-based meats like seafood for processed plant burgers. Also, you have to wonder what would be the outcome if you took a bunch of vegetarians and vegans and placed them on two diets: one where much of the protein comes from faux sausages and “beef” crumbles as opposed to less processed sources such as beans and lentils. That is an investigation where the meatless meat industry would be less likely to open the purse strings. 

Because many of these products are so thoroughly engineered to mimic meat, poultry and fish, the ingredient list is usually lengthy and ends up reading more like a chemistry quiz than something you’d make in your home kitchen. Plant-based protein isolates, made by extracting protein from crops like yellow peas, mung beans and soybeans, give the products their higher protein numbers. Oils like coconut and canola make them juicy. Thickeners, including methylcellulose and potato starch, hold them together. Lecithin aids in texture. Yeast extract helps deliver the meaty flavor. And plant extracts including beet give impostor beef and pork a meat-like bloody appearance. Though these additives aren’t necessarily sketchy health-wise, they are, well, additives. And these products typically need plenty of them to better mimic what they are intending to. 

The end result is often something that would qualify as ultra-processed – foods that have been significantly changed from their original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives and/or artificial flavor and colors. According to some research, the more of these ultra-processed foods we eat, including potato chips and, yes, plant meatballs made with potato starch, the less healthy we become. For instance, individuals with the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods over about eight years had a 58% higher risk of cardiovascular mortality compared with those with lower intake of ultra-processed foods, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving 24,325 men and women age 35 and older.

Worrisome is that this study showed that people who avoid animal-based foods typically consume more ultra-processed foods. The hard truth is that the preponderance of research shows that the value of vegan or plant-based eating to your health and sports performance comes when you’re eating more whole foods, and fewer of what author Michael Pollen calls ‘food-like substances.’ And when comparing animal-based foods to their alternatives, it helps to remember that meat isn’t inherently bad for you. The problem arises when we eat too much, especially processed red meats, and when they crowd out whole-food plants from our diets. 

Speaking of nutrition, meatless burgers such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Whopper at Burger King have calorie, saturated fat and sodium levels on par with conventional burgers. (A 4-ounce Beyond Burger patty has 270 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat and 380 mg of sodium.) Which is to say, these “healthier” patties have more or less what you’d get when ordering up a regular fast-food burger, even if you hold the mayo. No wonder these and similar products have been so easily adopted by fast-food chains including Carl’s Jr., White Castle, KFC and the golden arches

This is to say it’s still important to examine the package labels and nutrition content provided by chain restaurants. Thanks to the oil used to create juiciness, some (but not all) of the mock meats can be high in calories and saturated fat – though it’s not clear what impact this has on a person’s health if not consumed in excess. Some, like Raised and Rooted and Nuggs faux chicken nuggets, have about a third less saturated fat than standard nuggets.

Sodium levels are typically lofty to help with the flavor profile, which is problematic for those who have salt-sensitive conditions like high blood pressure, but maybe less so for healthy runners who frequently sweat up a storm. Of course, most people add salt to their meat such as ground beef before eating, but with processed, plant-based foods, you essentially lose the ability to control the amount of sodium in your meal.

Meat-free products do have some nutritional advantages, though. Many can be considered rich sources of protein rivaling that found in meat (not so for seaweed jerky or jackfruit “pulled pork”) without any of the cholesterol present in meat (and some of them contain fiber). Plus: no antibiotics or growth hormones to be found.

Just remember that not all protein is created equal. Owing to a less than complete amino acid profile products that grab most of their protein from peas won’t be as high of a quality as protein hailing from animals. The upshot is that runners will need to eat more pea or mung bean protein to get the same muscle-building benefit as they would from a higher quality animal-based protein. Although, soy protein, used in several meatless products, does have a protein quality that is more similar to that of animals. The rising tide of fish-less fish will lack the mega-healthy long-chain omega-3 fats present in swimmers like tuna and salmon. Also, unless they’re fortified with vitamins and minerals, as some meat alternatives are, they tend to be lacking in the vitamin B12, iron, zinc and few other nutrients found in meat. To be fair, they could be higher in nutrients like folate and magnesium that are more common in foods of plant origin.

It might be a case of give and take, requiring people to get these nutrients elsewhere in the diet if needed. For instance, if you have replaced your steak with meatless meat that is deficient in iron you’ll need to get this energy-boosting mineral from another dietary source. 

The Takeaway

Yes, these products are meat-free, but they are still processed food. Perfectly fine to eat occasionally, but ideally not an everyday staple. There is not necessarily anything particularly healthy about a vegan hot dog or Bolognese featuring pea protein “meat” crumbles. So do your label reading and look for more wholesome options. In the end, that might mean falling back on fresh veggies and genuine chicken breast.