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Fake Meat: Are Meat Substitutes Healthy?

Luisa Kindinger

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Are meat substitutes healthy? More and more people in the United States are turning to meat substitutes – but what exactly are these products that have recently conquered grocery store shelves across the nation? Let us tell you the buzz behind this phenomenon and how you can reduce your meat consumption with tasty and healthy alternatives.

Too much meat is unhealthy – that’s for sure. But those who don’t want to give up hot dogs, burgers, and other meaty treats are now spoilt for choice: Especially since 2019 more and more meat substitutes, such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan, have become popular. Vegan products also use significantly less resources and land in their production and emit around 90 percent less greenhouse gases than meat.

So, on the surface, it’s hard to fault these products, but what really lies behind these promises and the eye-catching packaging – how healthy and environmentally friendly are they really?

That’s why we’ve investigated whether or not meat substitutes are healthy, and we’ve also answered the most commonly asked questions, such as What is vegan meat?, What is tofu?, and What is tempeh? – with information on how they are produced and what you should consider when buying them.

What is Vegan Meat – Is It Becoming More Popular?

Around three-quarters of people in the US meet or exceed government recommendations on weekly meat and egg consumption, which is around 26 ounces for every 2,000 calories consumed.[15]

Even with this being the case, many people nowadays are well aware that excessive meat consumption poses a danger to not only our health but also the environment and animal welfare. According to data collected, around 98 percent of mainstream consumers who buy meat products also buy plant-based products in the United States. In fact, the meat substitutes market is estimated to be worth around 1.4 billion US dollars, which has climbed significantly in recent years.[16] It is thus clear that there is a significantly growing interest in the benefits of a vegan diet across the nation.

Why Is Eating Meat Considered Bad for the Environment?

Not only our bodies but also our environment suffers from excessive meat consumption. Even today, areas of the Amazon rainforest are cleared for additional grazing land, and 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gases are caused by livestock, which is roughly equivalent to the carbon dioxide emitted from cars, ships, trucks, and planes combined.[2] Worldwide, livestock consume vast amounts of water and over a third of all crops, driving up prices – especially in poorer countries.[2, 4]

Vegan products ensure that environmental pollution through fertilizers is reduced, and your intake of antibiotics through animal products is eliminated.[10] Meat substitutes make it easier for consumers to switch to a plant-based diet, as they can still enjoy vegan meals that are similar in appearance and taste to the meaty meals they are more familiar with.[7]

Amazon rainforest from above due to farming

Are Meat Substitutes Healthier than Meat?

There are many reasons why experts have underlined the benefits of a vegan diet. Daily meat consumption is directly linked to obesity, cardiovascular diseases such as arteriosclerosis and strokes. This is due to the fact that some meats are high in saturated fat, a lot of which can contribute to high cholesterol levels. If you are concerned about this, there are ways to lower cholesterol levels – and you can take a cholesterol test.

Studies have also revealed that there is a link between eating a lot of red or processed meat and bowel or colorectal cancer;[17] however, this association is based on limited evidence.

In addition, meat – especially chicken and turkey – is often contaminated with antibiotics, leading to vital drugs becoming less effective due to the development of resistant germs in humans.[2] Since 2017, it has been illegal to use antibiotics deemed as medically important for meat production purposes in the United States – animal producers now require authorization from licensed veterinarians prior to using certain antibiotics.[18]

Are Meat Substitutes Healthy?

The nutritional value of meat substitutes is mostly related to the degree of processing and the ingredients and additives used to produce them.[4, 11] The more the product is supposed to resemble meat, the more it has to be processed and modified, which also has a negative impact on how well you can digest it and also on its carbon footprint.

If possible, you should use products that are less processed and made of a few different ingredients. Avoid high salt content or excessive additives and flavors.[7] Low-processed meat alternatives include tofu, tempeh, sweet lupin tofu, and seitan, which can serve as great meat substitutes.[7]

How healthy meat substitutes really are is also disputed due to the lack of particular essential nutrients and vitamins found in many of them. It is a well-known fact that red meat contains all-important iron, zinc, and B vitamins – and that meat is one of our main sources of vitamin B12.[17]

If you are on a predominantly plant-based diet, doctors recommend regularly testing for nutrient and vitamin deficiencies, such as vitamin B12 deficiency and iron deficiency. Luckily, such deficiencies can be treated by taking dietary supplements, such as iron supplements, zinc supplements, and B vitamins.

cerascreen Ferritin Test

What Are Meat Substitutes for Vegans?

What Is Tofu and What Is Tempeh?

Soy-based meat alternatives have been on the market for a long time: Tofu and tempeh originated in Asian cuisine and have since taken the Western world by storm. Now, soy is also grown in the United States and in Europe.[12]

What is tofu? Tofu is made from ground soybeans, water, and a coagulant such as calcium sulfate or magnesium sulfate. Tofu is found both in solid form as a block or in more liquid form – silken tofu. The only difference between the two forms is their water content.

The raw form of tofu is less processed, low in calories, and contains less fat than many meat products.[7] It is also particularly versatile, as tofu has little flavor and can be used in a wide variety of dishes by seasoning it well. So, you can conjure up all kinds of meat products from firm tofu and the appropriate seasoning and sauces.

Another classic meat alternative made from soybeans is tempeh. What is tempeh? Tempeh consists of whole soybeans that are first cooked and then fermented with the help of mold cultures. Like tofu, tempeh can be found in slightly grainy blocks in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Tempeh is also firm, easy to process, and has a slightly nutty taste.

What Is Seitan?

Another classic is seitan protein – a meat substitute made from wheat protein, also known as gluten. Seitan originates from China and was already produced there over 1,000 years ago. The wheat protein is obtained by leaching starch from wheat flour, and it is cooked in soy sauce, seaweed, and spices for a meaty texture and flavor.

What Is Quorn Made of?

Quorn, which is made from mushroom cultures, is popular for its convincing meaty taste and appearance. However, the impressive taste and texture of Quorn is only made possible due to a high level of processing. Due to the many processing steps needed to produce Quorn, many minerals and vitamins are usually lost in these steps, which is why it is not considered suitable for a healthy and balanced diet.[11]

infographics about meat substitutes

Is It Healthy to Eat Jackfruit?

The jackfruit, which originates from Asia, has recently become a phenomenon in the Western world as a meat substitute imitating the consistency of chicken or pulled pork. Well seasoned, the unripe flesh of the jackfruit can form a vegan base for goulash, pulled pork burgers, tacos, or stir fry.

The flesh of the jackfruit is particularly low in calories and fat and contains a lot of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, minerals, and protein.[11] However, you should be cautious of eating jackfruit if you suffer from a cross-sensitivity involving birch pollen allergy or latex allergy. In fact, jackfruit allergy is becoming the focus of more and more studies; you can screen for a jackfruit allergy with certain comprehensive allergy tests that are available on the market.

Can Pulses Replace Meat?

A particularly healthy alternative to stock up on is legumes, such as lentils, beans, and the like. They are, without question, available in every grocery store in canned or dried form, and the good news is that they are cheap and unprocessed. Not only that – they are also extremely versatile: With them, you can make anything from lentil bolognese to burger patties made from kidney beans. Pulses are a great source of protein and fiber and are also low in fat.

Is TVP Unhealthy?

More and more meat substitutes on grocery store shelves are made from textured vegetable protein (TVP). These are chemically processed products. Proteins are separated from peas or soy by chemical processes and formed into a meat-like mass with the help of additives.

They are often processed with a lot of salt, sugar, spice, fat, thickeners, flavors, and colors in order to imitate meatballs, minced meat, schnitzel, and other popular meats. Unfortunately, the amount of processing to produce TVP means that it often contains few essential nutrients.

Soy Leghemoglobin: What Is Heme in Food?

This protein, its name referring to the red blood pigment hemoglobin, is also plant-based and is used as a color additive in vegan meats for its red color and meaty taste to replicate burgers, for example. Using this protein in such meals can produce a bleeding effect, causing fake meat to appear medium rare.

Heme is produced biotechnologically; in this process, a yeast strain is genetically modified, so that it can produce the blood-like dye. Genetically modified products are criticized for causing allergies and being unhealthy for humans. Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified the heme as safe to use in 2019.[13]

How Can I Consume Enough Protein?

Experts recommend a daily protein intake of five ounces for adults in the United States per 2,000 calories consumed. Sufficient protein intake is also possible with plant-based foods. Those who maintain a varied diet can reach their daily protein requirements well with various legumes, whole-grain products, nuts, vegetables, and potatoes.[14]

Here are some healthy plant-based sources of protein:[7, 14]

protein content in grams
What If I Have an Allergy?

Allergy sufferers should be wary when buying meat substitutes, as some products can cause allergic reactions. For example, people with a birch pollen allergy can suffer from an allergic reaction when eating products such as tofu, tempeh, or jackfruit during the pollen season. People with celiac disease must also exercise caution because gluten is found in seitan or wheat protein.

To find out more about allergies – such as symptoms, health tests, and treatment – visit our article on food allergies and intolerances.

cerascreen Food Sensitivity Test

Are Meat Substitutes Healthy – at a Glance

Why Do People Give Up Meat?

For some years now, a clear trend has been emerging: Fewer and fewer people support the excessive meat consumption of Western cultures. Reasons for this include the fact that excessive meat consumption drives climate change, promotes bad animal welfare, and can lead to obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Are Meat Substitutes Healthy?

Meat substitutes boast a lower carbon footprint than meat and can be lower in calories and fat. But be careful because often highly processed products with few nutrients and an excessive amount of salt, flavor-enhancing agents, sugar, fat, binding agents, colors, and additives are hidden in these vegan products. So, pay attention to the ingredients, and go for less processed products.

What Meat Alternatives Are There?

The number of vegan meat choices are diverse. Meat substitutes include tofu, tempeh, seitan, Quorn, TVP, legumes, or jackfruit. Vegetarian meat alternatives include fiber-enriched thickened milk.

Sources

[1]       Fleischkonsum in Deutschland pro Kopf bis 2020, Statista, available at https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/36573/umfrage/pro-kopf-verbrauch-von-fleisch-in-deutschland-seit-2000/, accessed on October 7, 2021.

[2]       Ein Plädoyer für weniger Fleischkonsum - NABU, NABU - Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V., available at https://www.nabu.de/umwelt-und-ressourcen/oekologisch-leben/essen-und-trinken/fleisch/22925.html, accessed on October 4, 2021.

[3]       Studie: Mehr als jedes zweite Hähnchen aus Europas größten Geflügel-Schlachtereien mit antibiotikaresistenten Erregern belastet | Germanwatch e.V., available at https://germanwatch.org/de/19460, accessed on October 4, 2021.

[4]        C. Chemnitz Benning, Reinhild, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland, Fleischatlas: Daten und Fakten über Tiere als Nahrungsmittel, 2021.

[5]       Infografik: Rund 8 Millionen Deutsche essen kein Fleisch, Statista Infografiken, available at https://de.statista.com/infografik/24000/anzahl-der-vegetarier-und-veganer-in-deutschland/, accessed on October 7, 2021.

[6]       Flexitarier — die flexiblen Vegetarier, available at https://www.dge.de/wissenschaft/weitere-publikationen/fachinformationen/flexitarier-die-flexiblen-vegetarier/, accessed on October 7, 2021.

[7]        Englert H., Siebert S., Vegane Ernährung. utb GmbH, 2020.

[8]        S. B. PERREN, Die Schweiz isst flexibel: Mal mit, mal ohne Fleisch und Fisch.”

[9]       Vegetarische und vegane Lebensmittel: Produktion steigt im 1. Quartal 2020 um 37 %, Statistisches Bundesamt, available at https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/Zahl-der-Woche/2020/PD20_30_p002.html, accessed on October 7, 2021.

[10]     Neue Fleischalternativen wirbeln die Agrar- und Lebensmittelindustrie durcheinander, Kearney, available at https://www.de.kearney.com/pressecenter/article/?/a/a-t-kearney-studie-zur-zukunft-des-fleischmarkts-bis-2040, accessed on October 5, 2021.

[11]     Lupinen und Jackfrüchte als veganes Fleisch, oekolandbau.de, available at https://www.oekolandbau.de/bio-im-alltag/einkaufen-und-kochen/produktinfos/lebensmittel/fleischlos-und-vegan/lupinen-und-jackfruechte/, accessed on October 5, 2021.

[12]     Fleischersatzprodukte – Ein Markt mit Zukunft, oekolandbau.de, available at https://www.oekolandbau.de/handel/marketing/sortiment/fleischersatzprodukte-ein-markt-mit-zukunft/, accessed on October 5, 2021.

[13]     Saftig, blutig, rot. Veganer Fleischersatz - perfekt dank Gentechnik, transGEN, available at https://www.transgen.de/lebensmittel/2760.vegan-fleischimitate-gentechnik-soja.html, accessed on October 12, 2021.

[14]      Leitzmann C. Fleischersatz–rein pflanzlich, in UGB-Forum 30: 296, 2013, vol. 299.

[15]     “DGA: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,dietaryguidelines.gov, available at https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf, accessed on October 25, 2021.

[16]     U.S. retail market data for the plant-based industry, Good Food Institute, available at https://gfi.org/marketresearch/, accessed on October 25, 2021.

[17]     “Meat in your diet: eat well,National Health Service, available at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/meat-nutrition/, accessed on October 29, 2021.

[18]      Food and Food Animals, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, available at https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/food.html, accessed on October 25, 2021.

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