Is Fake Meat Any Healthier Than Real Meat?
It makes sense to assume meat alternatives are healthier than real meat, or why would they get this popular? Meat substitutes can be healthy, but they're not necessarily better for you than the real thing.
Fake meat products aren't going anywhere anytime soon as consumers continue looking for animal-free options to address their health and ethical concerns. In this post, we'll explore the differences between real meat and meat alternatives so you can make the best decision for your health.
What is Fake Meat Made Of?
Fake meat products are made from a variety of plant-based ingredients, such as soy, grains, and vegetables. These ingredients are processed and flavored to mimic the taste and texture of real meat. Some fake meat products even "bleed" like real meat when cooked.
The downside is that fake meats are processed and made with additives and chemicals and have unintended health consequences. If you're thinking, "plants are healthy, what's the problem?" The problem is that plant protein isolates have the plant's nutrients stripped away. Soy protein isolate and pea protein isolate are some of the most common examples you find reading the ingredients list of vegan and vegetarian "meats."
Soy Protein Isolate
Soy protein isolate (also called soy protein concentrate) is a highly processed version of soy achieving a texture and color almost like finely ground beef. Useful in fake meats such as fake burgers and sausages, it's also cheap and easy to flavor, making it a common ingredient in many meat alternatives. Unfortunately, soy protein consumed in its isolated form has been linked to cancer. Soy protein isolate can also disrupt hormone balance and suppress thyroid function.
Pea Protein Isolate
Pea protein isolate is safer than soy, and it contains more amino acids essential for protein assimilation. Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are considered complete sources of protein because they contain all nine essential amino acids — the building blocks of proteins your body can't produce that must be acquired from your diet. Like soy protein isolate, pea protein isolate doesn't measure up as a complete protein because it's short of providing all nine.
The Unhealthy Side of Fake Meat
Is fake meat no healthier than the real thing? Sometimes, it's worse, depending on the ingredients used. Here's what you need to watch out for:
Fillers and Additives
Fake meat is typically highly processed, and it gets packaged and preserved to extend its shelf life. Nutritionists say whole foods like chicken breasts and fish fillets are healthier than processed foods, even when there are other nutritional factors like fat content to consider. Fake meats contain unhealthy chemical-based additives, such as artificial flavors and colorings. There's typically a gum or thickener like carrageenan or xanthan to gel the ingredients, and these substances don't serve your GI tract well when they build up.
High Sodium Content
The other problem is its sodium content. Whereas ground beef has 80 mg of sodium in a 4-ounce serving, the Beyond Burger, for instance, has 390 mg in the same 4 oz portion. Why is there so much sodium put in fake meat products? The main reason is that fake meat requires more salt than real meat to taste good. Sodium is also used to increase shelf life by preventing microbial growth.
Is Fake Meat a Good Source of Protein?
Since it's a highly processed food, fake meat isn't a quality source of protein. It can be high in sodium and lack important nutrients present in real meat, such as vitamin B-12 and zinc.
Proteins isolated from wheat, pea, soy, and vegetables are highly concentrated. You can ingest protein faster than your liver would naturally process if it were a whole food and complete protein source. The result is side effects such as indigestion, nausea, and diarrhea. No matter what protein you eat, avoid getting above 35 percent of your daily caloric intake from protein to protect your liver and gastrointestinal health.
Fake Meat Protein Content
One 4 oz Impossible Burger contains 19 grams of protein and a Beyond Burger the same size has 20 grams. Comparatively, 85% lean ground beef boasts 21 grams of protein per 4 oz serving. Not only does the beef patty have the most protein, but also it's a complete whole food source of it.
Can You Bulk with Fake Meat?
When you're bulking for a few weeks to gain muscle mass, you're better off eating real meat instead of fake. You could see less muscle growth with fake meat because it's not a complete source of essential amino acids. If the fake meat you eat in high volume upsets your GI tract, that can set back your training and delay muscle gains. Real meat is easier to digest and gives you all nine essential amino acids. That said, you still have to opt for leaner meats when you're eating protein in higher quantities to prevent elevated cholesterol.
Can You Cut with Fake Meat?
Avoiding high-sodium foods is important if you're cutting weight because sodium makes you retain water. You'll retain less water weight eating lean poultry, fish, lamb, and beef instead of fake meat and highly processed real meat, such as sausages, hot dogs, and salami. Opt for the freshest cuts of real meat instead of anything processed.
Fake Meat vs. Real Meat: Final Thoughts
Fake meat is often marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional meat. However, meat alternatives are products we often forget are manufactured and preserved. With so many protein choices out there, we hope you leave this post with more clarity on fake meat vs. real meat than you began with.