Plant based meat is seeing significant growth around the world as more and more people are looking to limit their meat consumption. In fact, there has been a 26% rise in sales totaling $800 million in revenue over the past year alone.
But how do plant based meats compare to the real thing and what does the future hold for the big players like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods? In this post, we’ll look at plant based meat alternatives, how they compare to real meat, and what the future might look like for the meat industry as a whole.
What are plant based meats?
So what exactly is plant based meat? The answer may not shock you – it’s meat made from plants, usually soy or peas.
It is a product that has been specifically designed to either look, taste or cook like conventional meat and often incorporates all or most of these properties.
It is most commonly found in the form of burger patties, sausages or nuggets, mimicking the most popular forms of meat. But as the industry has grown from strength to strength and the popularity of meat alternatives has grown, it’s taking on new forms and there are whole ranges of plant products including mince and even ribs.
What was once an industry of dry, grainy veggie burgers is now an industry which has steaks that look like they bleed when cooked.
Benefits of eating plant based meats
You’d think that being plant-based would make them much healthier than actual meat, but the truth is a little more complicated.
Harvard Health carried out a comparison experiment and published an article posting their results. They found that plant-based meat alternatives did offer a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, but it was important to acknowledge that they were also highly processed containing high saturated fat and sodium levels.
Side by side, meat and plant-based patties both held some of the same unhealthy compounds, but plant based products were no worse than their meat counterparts. And although they did do better in some categories, they aren’t as healthy as many would like to believe.
As with any food products, even though they are made using plant alternatives, many companies have developed fast food style products that mimic their meat variations. So just because they are plant based, this does not always equate to healthy.
That being said studies have shown that having a diet with a higher amount of plant-based foods versus animal products leads to a longer life with a reduced risk of ailments prevalent in a meat-based diet.
Specific ailments include less risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and heart disease, which has been attributed to plant-based diets consisting of a much lower intake of animal carcinogens.
highly processed meats such as bacon are considered ‘clear class one carcinogens’ by the world health organisation, putting them in the same bracket as cigarettes. So even though plant-based meats may carry high levels of sodium and saturated fats, they do not compare to meat-based processed products in this manner.
It’s not just our health that can benefit from plant-based alternatives. Studies have shown that plant-based alternatives such as the Beyond Meat burger patty can have a significant environmental effect compared to a quarter pound of U.S beef.
Scientists showed that the plant-based alternative creates 90% less greenhouse gas emission, requires 46% less energy input to produce, has a 99% reduced impact on water scarcity, and a 93% reduced impact on land use.
It’s clear there is a huge environmental difference between the plant-based and meat options for a burger patty.
But it’s not only this one company or product that can generate such incredible differences. Comparable studies of the Impossible Burger have shown a similarly reduced environmental impact – 89% reduced carbon footprint as well as similar impacts on land and water use.
This means that as well as being better for your physical health, mentally plant based meat alternatives are also giving a much-needed change in our daily impact on the planet we live on.
The different kinds of plant based meat
The benefits of plant-based meat alternatives are clear to see, but where do you start? There are plenty of options available now, but do they all taste the same? Do they all cook the same?
The short answer is no. There is a lot of variation in the plant based meat industry and some are much better than others.
Below we explore the different options out there and their uses.
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
Also known as soy meat, soy chunks or soy protein, it is a defatted soy flour protein product that is actually a by-product of the soy oil making process.
It is a versatile and easy to use textured vegetable protein and once it’s rehydrated, can be used for almost anything. Which is why it’s so popular with some of the big plant-based meat brands.
Beyond Meat is another popular company that utilises TVP to make a burger that can simulate the same texture and taste of a hamburger and, ultimately, simulate the satisfaction of a good hamburger patty.
How to use textured vegetable protein
It is versatile and can be used as a ground beef alternative – making it a great choice for homemade burgers. It’s also great for cutlets, meatloaves, and patties. It has a good texture so holds together well if grilling or frying.
Is textured vegetable protein healthy?
TVP comes from pea, mung bean, and brown rice, rather than soy, which creates a complete protein, or a protein that has all nine essential amino acids.
Tofu is made from condensed soy milk that has been compressed into blocks. In many ways, it’s made in a way similar to cheese.
Originating in China and coming about by accident, the product is over 2000 years old and is a great substitute for different meats in recipes.
It has been used as a staple in Asian cuisine since its inception and is often the product many people think about when they hear the words vegan and vegetarian food stuffs.
How to use tofu
Although it often gets a bad rap for being spongy, bland and tasteless, this doesn’t have to be the case.
To use tofu properly, it should be pressed to remove excess water. And while fairly tasteless on its own, tofu holds flavours well so it is best when heavily seasoned.
When cut into small chunks, it can also be made crispy in a frying pan or oven before being used in recipes.
Tofu comes in two forms, extra firm or silken. As a meat substitute, the extra firm variety is preferable as the silken is far too crumbly to represent meat in recipes.
Is tofu healthy?
Tofu is pretty healthy. Being made from soybeans, it is naturally high in calcium and protein which is why it is a staple in vegan diets along with mushroom dishes. In addition, it contains all the amino acids we require as well as healthy fats and carbs and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
This is an Indonesian soy product that is similar to tofu in many respects. It is made by fermenting the soybeans in a natural and controlled fermentation process before pressing the product into a cake form. It is slightly firmer than tofu and possesses a nutty flavour and a grainy texture in comparison to traditional tofu.
How to use tempeh
One of the advantages that tempeh holds over its tofu cousin is that it is naturally firmer and therefore does not require pressing to use it.
It can be cut and used straight away, meaning that there is slightly less preparation time involved with using tempeh over tofu.
Other than that, it can be used in the same manner as tofu, being cut into ‘meat’ like steaks or shredded to use in stir fry’s or similar recipes.
Tempeh works well to emulate fish products when steamed (which also helps to remove any bitterness) and can be ground to simulate ground beef in recipes making it quite a versatile product.
Is tempeh healthy?
Tempeh is packed with protein as well as fibre, vitamins and minerals including calcium, making it another healthy alternative to meat in your cooking.
Seitan is made from pure wheat gluten. This is the protein found in bread products that give it it’s elasticity. Developed by vegetarian Buddhist monks in China and Japan, it has been eaten there for centuries as a meat substitute.
How to use seitan
Seitan is possibly the most meat-like alternative in terms of texture and mouthfeel. It is chewy and holds flavours in a similar way to marinating meat. It can be bought as a ‘loaf’, made using vital wheat gluten flour or found in many meat alternative products like nuggets due to its meaty texture.
It’s also easy to make if you’re feeling creative and is easy to cook with. It will hold up to frying, grilling, braising, and anything you would normally do to meat.
Is seitan healthy?
It is full of protein as you would expect, but contains less nutrients than products such as tofu and tempeh.
Obviously, if you have a gluten intolerance you should not eat seitan, because that’s literally all it is. If you do have a gluten dietary issue, make sure you check meat alternatives for seitan as it may not be immediately obvious of the gluten content.
This is one of the original brands of plant-based meat alternatives and their burger patties.
Their burgers are set to head a whole new line of pea protein meat alternatives that aim to emulate the taste and texture of meat products, jumping on the trend of flexitarian eating and appealing to the wider vegetarian and vegan customer base.
How to use lightlife
This type of patty will hold up well being fried or grilled, but it will have to wait to see how versatile any other products in their range will be once they hit the shelves.
Is Lightlife healthy?
Their patties are made from pea protein, coconut oil and beet powder. Although a good source of protein, they do have high levels of saturated fat and sodium like other plant based meat patties.
Made from soy protein or wheat gluten, tofurkey is similar in taste and texture to turkey and is widely enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans as a turkey alternative.
How to use tofurky
It is generally cooked as a loaf that can emulate a turkey roast but can be found in ready-made forms of sliced turkey. Like a delicious veggie burger made from jackfruit, tofurkey is excellent for making vegan turkey burgers as well. This means tofurkey a little more versatile than just a roast.
With many positive reviews about its texture and taste, it’s certainly a product that should be tried before shelving in the misfire category.
Is tofurky healthy?
While you would be hard pressed to mistake a loaf of tofurkey for the real thing, nutritionally they are fairly similar. Tofurkey contains a large amount of protein gram for gram and is a complete protein as it is derived from soy.
However, tofurky is far denser in carbs than turkey so can be seen as a poorer option for flexitarians.
History of Plant Based Meats
Although there has been a recent surge of popularity, plant-based meats can be traced as far back as the 1880’s to a well-known pair of brothers, the Kelloggs.
While we are more used to their cereals that were advocated as a healthier alternative to meat based breakfasts, they are also the little known creators of ‘protose’ the earliest form imitation meat in the western world.
At their facility in Battle Creek, they began the meat alternative movement over two centuries ago. Unfortunately, they were members of a religious movement known for its pursuit of bland and vegetarian food – an attempt to be closer to God. As such, it’s easy to see why it was not a widespread product at the time.
Their mixture of a steamed product of corn starch, peanut butter, and cabbage, among other ingredients, actually became popular in sanitariums, which should probably tell you all you need to know about the state of the product at that time.
A growing movement
The growing vegetarian movement began in the early twentieth century as the horrors of meat packing plants were exposed to the general public.
An expose of how sausage meat was made and subsequently contaminated proved to be an unintentional catalyst to the vegetarian movement in it’s fledgling years.
This heightened awareness of the poor practices in meat factories led to a whole variety of meat alternatives coming to market that had been integral parts of eastern cultures for centuries.
The Adventists that began a food company in 1931 would go on to produce the world’s first commercially available meat alternatives in the form of soy and wheat based products.
Modern day meat substitutes
Fast forward to 1981 and a restaurateur in Oregon would create the garden burger from leftover rice and vegetables, eventually creating the first veggie burger and creating a million-dollar company in the process.
By the early twenty first century, fast food giants like Burger King caught onto the possibilities of a vegetarian option, launching the BK veggie burger patty in 2002.
By 2013, a Dutch company produced the first truly meatless mockup by growing a burger in a lab using cow muscle cells, calf blood, and antibiotics, which sounds delicious.
Now, breakfast superstars like Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons have turned to Beyond Meat as they look to get in on the early stages of a dietary revolution. Supermarkets and other food outlets are finally capitalising on the demand and the growing market for plant-based meat alternatives.
Plant Based Meats and Dieting
The flexitarian diet was coined by a dietician to help people reap the benefits of a more plant based diet without having to cut out the consumption of animal products.
The diet is an amalgamation of the words ‘flexible’ and ‘vegetarian’ which is exactly what it is.
Many see this as the way forward – more people eating a percentage of plant based meals in their diet to help their health and ease the environmental burden on the planet.
While many would advocate a complete change, it is at least giving people a chance to see what plant based alternatives have to offer and reaches a far larger audience as a result.
The vegetarian diet involves abstaining from eating meat, fish and poultry. It is still okay to consume animal products such as dairy products and eggs, but no flesh is consumed. As a result, meat based alternatives have always been popular with people advocating this diet.
Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in the diet. It’s a philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. As a result, meat based products can be hit and miss as this diet can mean that many are not looking to replicate meat in their diet and are just satisfied with preparing vegan dishes.
For others, plant-based meat alternatives can help to make the transition to veganism easier as well as vary a restricted diet.
The growing popularity of Plant Based Meats
Plant based meat represents only a small margin of the meat market, coming in at around 1% of sales. Even so, sales have increased by 40% over the last five years and represent a growing trend of popularity with plant-based alternatives in the last two years.
To further represent this, Beyond Meat saw its price shares increase 500% in the three months after it went public.
As product quality improves and non-vegetarian/vegan consumers continue to be brought in, it is expected that the rapid growth of Beyond Meat and similar companies will continue.
As non-vegetarian/vegan consumers are far less likely to compromise on alternative meat quality from an ethical standpoint, these companies have had to make sure that this is at the forefront of their development and as such are putting out more and better products.
Partnerships with fast food companies have also helped to see meat alternatives flourish, with Burger King striking a deal with Impossible Foods and KFC teaming up with Beyond Meat.
It is predicted that more companies will follow suit and get on the back of the growing trend toward meat alternatives.
The global situation we are experiencing at the moment in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic could also have a positive impact on plant-based meat sales.
Shockingly, almost three quarters of the world’s largest meat, fish and dairy companies are at a high pandemic risk and have been criticised for their inability to prevent the emergence and spread of new zoonotic diseases.
These types of industry have been identified as so incredibly vulnerable to this kind of threat that the sector is playing a role in creating future pandemic risks. Intensive animal production could present serious risk to the world, possibly being the straw that breaks the meat industry’s back.
Plant Based Meats VS Meat
So it seems plant based meat alternatives are here to stay. But how do they compare to their meat counterparts?
Animal foods produce better protein, containing all the amino acids that your body needs. However, some alternatives such as tofu are also complete proteins and the simple fact that there are vegan bodybuilders means plant based foods offer enough protein – though plant based meats are definitely not the best source.
Animal food sources are also higher in nutrients such as vitamin b-12, vitamin D, omega-3 and iron and zinc. This means that a multivitamin may be needed as a compliment to a plant based diet.
Of course, processed red meat is associated with a host of medical ailments including hypertension and heart disease, which plant based alternatives are not.
A vegan diet high in plant-based foods is likely to significantly lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity and explains the general better health enjoyed by vegans and vegetarians.
So how does the Beyond burger stack up against a regular meat patty? Here are some stats:
Beyond Burger (4 ounce uncooked patty):
- Calories: 270
- Fat: 20 g (6 g sat fat)
- Sodium: 380 mg
- Carbohydrates: 5 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Sugars: 0 grams
- Protein: 20 grams
Impossible Burger (4 ounce uncooked patty):
- Calories: 220
- Fat: 13 g (10 g saturated)
- Sodium: 430 mg
- Carbohydrates: 5 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Sugar: Less than 1 g
- Protein: 20 g
80% lean raw beef patty:
- Calories: 287
- Fat: 23 g (9 g sat fat)
- Sodium: 75 mg
- Carbohydrates: 0 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Sugars: 0 g
- Protein: 19 g
You’ll see that although both Impossible and Beyond contain slightly more protein and Beyond does have fibre, both the plant-based options are significantly higher in sodium content.
Pound for pound, plant based meat alternatives such as the Beyond Burger compared to US beef production yields 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and takes almost half the energy to produce.
A statistic from Fast Company suggested that if Americans switched from beef to plant-based alternatives, it would be the equivalent of removing up to 12 million cars from the country per year.
Taste is incredibly subjective. Even so, there have been several blind taste tests by different organizations including the New York Times who give plant based meat high ratings.
Blind Taste Test: https://youtu.be/HnX80LL0cYY
When it comes to taste, that is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. So grab a couple of plant-based options and see if you can tell the difference.
The latest data shows that Beyond Meat’s prices have remained high while their sales have done the same. This could represent a problem for them and the plant-based alternative meat market in the future.
While alternative plant products remain at three or four times the cost of regular meat products, it will be a big ask to get more people to switch to plant-based products if they are not vegetarian or vegan.
The ongoing improvement of the quality, taste, and variety of plant based alternatives can help to bridge the gap if prices stay level. That is, people are willing to pay for quality, as they are in the meat industry.
Of course, this price difference is more exaggerated in the US due to the low-quality standards of its meat industry. In Europe where standards are higher, the difference between meat and plant based alternatives is not at such a gulf.
Having said that, with the incredible sales alternative meat companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat are posting, the cost doesn’t seem to be putting customers off. Time will tell if this is just a trend or a lasting change.
How to cook Plant Based Meat
If you’re new to plant-based meat and don’t know where to start, here are some tasty recipes to get you started.
Best Plant Based Meat Recipes
Budget-Friendly Plant-Based Recipes:
- Whitney E. RD gives 20 budget plant based recipes
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- My Plant Based Family offers the cheapest plant based recipes ever