First of all, what’s this “fake” meat made of? Meat alternatives generally start with a plant-based protein such as soy, pea, wheat or potatoes. Mushrooms can also be a foundation of synthetic meats. The “blood” that comes out after a big bite of your rare burger is produced either from beet juice or leghemoglobin, the plant version of the protein that makes your red blood cells red. Given the variety of sources of plant-based “meats,” be sure to check the ingredients for any triggers of food allergies. Also, as there are a number of oils and other preservatives, sometimes there can be some GI sensitivities as well, so it’s probably best to see how your body responds before downing a meat substitute breakfast sandwich followed by a plant-based burger for lunch and some faux fried-chicken for dinner.
Is it really healthy? One of the most common misconceptions about a meat-free diet is that it’s inherently healthy. A cinnamon roll for breakfast, cheese pizza for lunch, and fries with a milk shake for dinner is technically vegetarian, but it’s not healthy. Unfortunately for many meat substitutes, while base ingredients like pea protein can be very healthy, the amount of salt and additives you have to add to convince my taste buds that I’m devouring a juicy hamburger renders most of the health benefits a moot point. The caloric content is roughly equivalent, the few grams of fat you save are replaced by carbs, and you’ve increased the salt content by about 25%. You do end up with less cholesterol and a little more fiber, but you’ve lost a few grams of protein. You may also lose out on some of the benefits of eating meat to begin with, which are vitamin B12 and iron (these micronutrients are often deficient in vegetarians). Lastly, we don’t really have any studies regarding the longterm health effects of meat substitutes and the additives needed to make them taste like meat.
So, there’s not really any benefits? From a health standpoint, a greasy burger or fried chicken (real or fake) isn’t going to be the foundation of anyone’s healthy diet, but there are a few advantages of fake “meat.” First, there’s no need to inject antibiotics or hormones to make an animal grow faster and increase food production. Also, to be fair, there is noticeably less impact on the environment to grow vegetables than animals for food.
What’s a person to do then? From a health standpoint, we do note increased health benefits from a plant-based diet, although that’s probably not one based entirely on meat substitutes, at least with how these are produced now. As for real meats, less processed is generally preferred, and free range, antibiotic-free and hormone-free are going to be the best options with regards to health. When it comes to choosing some of the healthiest meat of all, wild game is another strong contender. These animals tend to have the leanest meat as they are inherently free range, and it also guarantees avoidance of hormones and antibiotics while having the added advantage of increasing exercise for the hunter.
In the end, whether eating real meat or fake, moderation is going to be key, and be sure to keep an eye on the ingredients in those foods, especially synthetic ones. Cooking for yourself will give you even more control over your food ingredients, and to maximize your health benefits, try making the foundation of your meals unprocessed vegetables and fruits. It turns out that when your mom made you eat your vegetables before you could go play, she knew what she was talking about after all 😊