Plant-based Meat Alternatives: Are They Healthy or All Hype?

  • Marie Roth, MA, RDN, ACTP
  A new generation of plant-based meat alternatives, with more on the way, have hit the supermarket shelves and are being marketed to a broad range of consumers.  

The manufacturers tout their unique ability to mimic beef in both taste and experience, while also claiming to help Americans meet the call for shifting our dietary patterns toward plant-based foods for both human and environmental health.  But how healthy are these popular lab-made meat alternatives for consumers?

The first thing we need to understand is these trendy meat alternatives rely on purified plant proteins and other ingredients that are highly processed and chemically treated or extracted. While each ingredient is considered “generally safe” by the FDA, the question of how well the body is designed at metabolizing so many chemically produced ingredients remains unanswered and likely varies based on the overall health status of the individual.  A handful of studies that examined the impact of such highly refined and processed ingredients have indicated a variety of negative reactions in the body.  However, additional and larger studies are needed to confirm.  Other recent study findings also suggest a correlation between diets high in ultra-processed food and excess caloric intakes and weight gain. And of course, food processing typically leads to the loss of beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals. 

Another thing to keep in mind, now that popular fast food chains have added them to the menu, is people don’t typically eat meat substitutes or burger patties on their own, so we have to consider the full context in which they’re often consumed. For example, when placed between a bun made of refined grains, covered in toppings, and served with fries and a soda, we can’t assume that substituting one of these alternative patties for a beef burger patty is improving overall dietary quality. 

Bottom line:  These patties are a meat substitute, but they're not necessarily a healthier meat substitute.  Enthusiasm around plant-based meats and other alternatives should not detract from the bigger picture that a healthy dietary pattern includes an abundant amount of minimally processed plant foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds; moderate amounts of dairy products, seafood, and poultry; and small amounts of processed and red meats, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains. 

Yes, there is a place for these alternatives, but we should recognize them for what they are—processed foods-- and consume them much more sparingly than we are being made to believe.


These materials are provided to you by Blythedale Children’s Hospital and Kohl’s
Eat Well, Be Well Nutrition Outreach Program.
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Kohl's Eat Well, Be Well Program

Blythedale Children's Hospital, through the generosity of Kohl’s Department Stores, is proud to offer Blythedale and Kohl's Eat Well, Be Well, an innovative outreach program designed to bring health and nutrition education to schools throughout Westchester and Putnam counties. Through this program, Blythedale staff members teach healthy eating habits to children by providing curricula, training and educational tools to school districts throughout the area. The program provides general nutrition guidelines to students, parents and school faculty. Blythedale Children's Hospital offers experts in nutrition and health-education to speak with local parenting groups, PTAs and school personnel.

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