APU Health & Fitness Original

Are Meatless Alternatives Really Healthy Enough for You?

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By Dr. Sheri Hernandez
Program Director, Hospitality Management

“Ugh, how can you stand eating that?!!” was a question posed to me at a backyard barbecue last year as I was putting freshly ground beef patties on the grill. My thought was, “What?? Burgers are delicious!!”

“Eew, it’s bleeding!” was the disgusted response as I popped another thick patty onto the hot grate. I did not bother trying to explain the red liquid was not in fact blood and that in properly prepared meat from the butcher, there is no blood. Instead, the liquid is a protein called myoglobin that gives meat its color.

But I know better than to get into a conversation with some of my friends about my choice to eat red meat. The next person who wandered over took a deep breath and lamented, “Boy, do I miss a juicy burger since I gave up eating red meat because of my cholesterol!” 

Why People Decide to Stop Eating Meat

I know quite a few vegetarians. Some of them choose to avoid eating meat for health reasons, others abstain from red meat due to ethical concerns related to raising animals for food. Some of my friends are not as strict and will just avoid red meat, while one or two try to follow a strict vegan lifestyle and not consume any animal products.

Because of their preferences, I have grilled or heated up a wide variety of meatless patties during our backyard burger barbecues. I have tried many different brands. While some meatless patties have a fairly tasty flavor, for me — as someone who really enjoys an occasional juicy burger — those patties just cannot replace a freshly ground beef burger.

Burgers are an occasional treat for me, so I am not concerned with healthier options, nor am I particularly drawn to exploring different products that have the same taste, texture, and appearance as ground beef. The real thing suits my appetite perfectly, thank you very much. However, many people are drawn to a relatively new option on the market.

Plant-Based Meatless Alternatives

There are a couple of companies that have begun selling lab-created meat alternatives that are marketed as having the same appearance, texture and taste as ground beef. The marketing does not call them “lab-created,” of course. It appears that the marketing for these meatless products is more in line with clean, natural eating and the organic, animal-free diet lifestyle.

In fact, different fast-food companies and many restaurants have begun selling these products as beef alternatives, with the same toppings as their bovine-based menu staples. The reviews have been mixed, but for those who enjoy the taste of beef but choose not to consume it, they have become quite popular.

But before indulging in a plant-based patty that has been manufactured to mimic the oozy, “bloody” goodness of a juicy beef patty, consider why you might be turning to the alternative. If it is for health or nutrition reasons, or if it is to avoid processed foods or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you may want to take a step back and do a little more research.

Currently, there are two main brands on the market that tout their meatless patties as having the same taste, texture and appearance as ground beef. That includes the “bloody” appearance of the product as it is cooked. Keep in mind that these products are intended for those who love red meat, but do not eat it for whatever reason.

Consider Your Values

I have a friend who has taken on a vegan lifestyle because of the ethics surrounding the use of animals for human consumption. However, that friend still misses the flavor of real meat, seeks out meat alternatives, and consumes as much vegan ice cream, chocolate, and beer as possible.

For that friend, one of the two main brands of “meatless” beef would be a great option. Recently, both brands have verified they are vegan, but one brand has used animal testing to determine the safety of one of their ingredients. So people who are against using animals in any way for food processing may want to avoid that particular brand.

My friend who has stopped eating red meat for health reasons may want to have a piece of grilled chicken or a “true” veggie burger, instead of indulging in a plant-based meat patty. The nutritional information for both main brands of meatless burgers is of course widely available. The truth is that these products are actually not healthier in terms of calories, protein or fat content, as compared to a high-quality patty made from lean ground beef.

Processed Food versus a Process

Not every person who has taken on a vegetarian diet is into “clean eating” and avoiding overly processed foods. Some of my vegetarian friends regularly devour brownies and pancakes from prepared mixes, feed their kids boxed mac and cheese, and go through tons of chips and crackers.

To be fair, much of what they eat is highly processed, even though it does not contain meat. No judgement, just stating a fact.  

But meatless burgers (and many meat replacements) are highly processed and contain many different ingredients. If simply avoiding meat is your goal, but you miss the taste of it, these products may be a good alternative.

Also, people with food allergies need to scrutinize the ingredients of these meatless burgers to make sure they are safe to consume. These burgers are created in a lab and manufactured in a food processing facility, so there is no way to get around that fact. The companies defend themselves by focusing on the process of combining plants to create these meat-like substances, rather than focusing on the “processed” part of it all.

For the person who is into clean eating and avoiding processed foods, these meat alternatives are not the way to go. In fact, one of the brands contains a genetically modified soy protein, which to some people is very much something to be avoided.

There is a long-standing debate about GMOs, which have been around for decades and have benefits both to people’s health and the environment. But it is something to be aware of if avoiding GMOs is a personal decision.

Making Good Food Choices

For a burger lover, there is nothing quite like that first bite of a juicy, perfectly cooked burger. If you are avoiding eating meat for any reason, there is likely an alternative that could satisfy your craving.

Just be mindful that these meatless alternatives were created in a lab. They were made to look, taste and have same texture as beef. The market is all about choices and satisfying demand. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for plant-based meat products.

Dr. Sheri Hernandez is the Hospitality Management program director for the School of Business. She has extensive knowledge of restaurant operations, food safety, purchasing and training. Dr. Hernandez combines her skills as a restaurant manager with her career experience in financial commodity risk management, consulting, and purchasing to enable her to educate her students with a customer-focused, yet financially sound approach to hospitality management.

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