With the increasing attention toward more healthful, greener and more humane meat alternatives, new plant-based meats have emerged. But are they safe, nutritious substitutes?

A recent study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health confirms that they are. The research, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, indicates that the imitation meats act as good sources of folate, iron and fiber and contain less saturated fat than ground beef. However, the research also indicated that these “fake meats” have less zinc, vitamin B12 and protein, as well as increased amounts of salt.

Lead researcher Lisa Harnack, DrPH, RD, MPH, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis, said, “Switching from ground beef to a plant-based ground beef alternative product can be a healthy choice in some ways.” But, she advised, it’s important to read the Nutrition Facts label and choose a product that matches your particular health and nutrition goals.

She said that, for example, if an individual is limiting sodium in order to control high blood pressure, it’s important to avoid products high in salt. “If you’re watching saturated fat intake for heart health, read the label to make sure you’re choosing a product that is low in saturated fat. A few products contain as much or nearly as much saturated fat as ground beef.”

To conduct the study, Harnack’s research team used a University of Minnesota food and nutrient database that includes 37 plant-based ground beef alternative products made by a number of food companies. Although the plant-based products can be healthful alternatives to beef, Harnack is hopeful that manufacturers will pursue methods to keep sodium to a minimum. “Food companies should work to optimize the nutritional quality of their products, especially with respect to the amount of salt and other sodium-containing ingredients used in formulating veggie burgers and other plant-based ground beef alternative products,” she said.

Senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, Samantha Heller, MS, RDN, CDN, reviewed the research findings and noted that the World Health Organization has classified processed meats, such as bacon, sausage and deli meats, as potentially cancer-causing, and red meat, including beef, pork, lamb and veal, as probable cancer-causing substances, due to the processing and compounds in the meat and cooking methods. She said, “Limiting consumption of red and processed meats significantly lowers one’s intake of saturated fat.”

The sodium in some plant-based imitation meats may be moderate to high, but if most of the foods people eat are less-processed ones, it shouldn’t be a problem, Heller added. “All in all, eating more plants and fewer animals is good for your health and the health of the planet,” she said. However, she noted that “meat alternative” is not an ideal term because of the taste expectations it may promote. “While some plant-based ‘meats’ come close to the taste and texture of real meat, the idea is that these foods offer a different choice for protein, not a one-on-one swap out for meat or other animal foods,” she said.

She noted that for individuals seeking a more plant-based diet, many options exist. “Whole foods are best, but there is plenty of wiggle room to include plant-based meat, dairy, poultry and egg alternatives,” Heller said. “On a daily basis if we eat a balanced, more plant-rich diet, we should be able to meet our nutrient needs.

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