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Is Plant-Based “Fake” Meat Good for Your Health?

A burger in a pan.
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Read time: 6 minutes

Fake burgers. Fake bacon. Fake sausages. Even fake chicken and sweetcorn sandwiches. These days, there doesn’t seem to be a meat product that doesn't have its own ersatz vegan doppelgänger, and consumers are lovin’ it; in the US alone, the size of the plant-based food market more than doubled between 2017 and 2023, growing from $3.9 billion to $8.1 billion.

In parallel, the research field supporting the health benefits of plant-based diets has also bloomed in recent years. According to a meta-review published in PLOS One this year, the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism are unmistakable; compared to meatier diets, plant-based ones were firmly associated with better health outcomes regarding blood pressure, blood sugar management and body mass index scores, as well as lower incidences of ischemic heart disease and gastrointestinal and prostate cancers.

The two phenomena seem like the perfect match. More people turning to plant-based diets just as more promising plant-based research is published? Time to crack open the plant-based party sausages and celebrate healthy living!

There’s a catch, though: nearly every study demonstrating the health benefits of plant-based diets examined the effects of actual plant-derived ingredients, like vegetables, legumes and nuts; fabricated food items like “lamb kebabs” made from pea protein and emulsifiers were not considered.

So, based off this mounting plant-based research alone, there’s no guarantee that that plant-based chicken shawarma is any good for you. It could even pose some health risks of its own…

After all, such manufactured fake meats meet the definition of ultra-processed foods – the very class of artificially altered food thought to contribute to the rise of obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancers seen in the Western world.

Which is it, then? Are fake meats the healthy, greener alternative to the fatty flesh of cows and pigs? Or are they just another counterfeit component of the West’s new detrimental diet?

Let’s dig into the few relevant studies on plant-based meat substitutes to find out.

What does the research say?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, only a handful of studies investigating the nutritional qualities of plant-based “meats” have been conducted so far. Nonetheless, a consensus is already building.

According to these studies, when compared to their meaty counterparts, plant-based alternatives are generally lower in saturated fat, higher in sugars and lacking in nutrients like vitamin B12 and iron.

Vitamin B12, iron and zinc – what are they?

B12 is a vitamin only found in animal products (meat, seafood, eggs and dairy). It plays a key role in the body’s production of red blood and nerve cells. Iron is vital for the functioning of red blood cells, too, while zinc is used in the immune system and for wound healing.

In a paper published in Nutrients in 2019, researchers from Australia’s Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council found that less than a quarter of purchased meat alternatives (24%) were fortified with B12. Only 20% were fortified with iron and 18% were packed with zinc. Most of the 137 fake meat products tested were also lower in kilojoules(kJ) and total fat and saturated fat, but higher in carbohydrates and dietary fiber when compared with actual meat. The majority of the products (96%) were also high in sodium.

This last finding in particular led the researchers to conclude that alternative meats may pose their own health concerns, given that salt is “the leading dietary factor in terms of the global burden of disease.”

Other researchers (who may or may not be less biased towards grains and legumes) have produced slightly different results when testing plant-based “meats”.

In a paper published in Nutrition & Dietetics in 2023, researchers from the University of Sydney found their tested alternative meats to be lower in sodium than the real meats. Like the Grains & Legumes researchers, though, they found that the 132 plant-based foods they analyzed were lower in saturated fats and higher in sugars than the foods’ fleshy counterparts. Similarly, only 12.1% of the meat analogs were fortified with iron, B12 and zinc.

Another study published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis last year found that, out of 216 meat alternatives, most had an average energy content similar to that of meatier versions. The range of these energy values, however, varied to a greater degree (ranging from 267
-1,796kJ per 100g) than the range of the meat products.

Fake sausages had the highest average sodium content (494mg per 100g), but this value was still lower than the average sodium content for real sausages (611mg). These bogus bangers also had similar levels of protein and saturated fat to the real sausages.

Foods made from tempeh (fermented soybeans) were typically lower in energy and fat than foods made from mycoprotein and tofu, but higher in sugar and dietary fiber.

A recent literature review published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology concurred that the nutritional profiles of plant-based meat alternatives vary considerably from product to product. Nonetheless, the researchers from the University of British Columbia judged that such products generally aligned with recommendations for improving cardiovascular health.

Given that consumers who eat more plant-based “meat” than actual meat tend to have lower levels of cholesterol and body mass index scores, the research team concluded that replacing meat with such products may be cardioprotective. To know for sure, they say randomizsed, controlled trials that evaluate cardiovascular events (heart attacks, strokes, etc.) will be needed.

Ultimately, these studies tend to come to the same general conclusion: meat substitutes may offer convenience and familiarity, but they are likely to be less healthy, less sustainable and more costly than actual plant-derived foods like legumes and vegetables.

What do the experts say?

For the sake of our health, should we be cutting down on our plant-based meat as well as the real thing?

Not completely, say some experts. When it comes to choosing our next meal,  it’s best to measure meat substitutes on the same principles we measure other foods on: their levels of salt, sugar, fat, protein and nutrients, they say. After all, not all fake meats are equal in nutrition.

“If you’re looking at sausages, there’s a tendency for plant-based sausages to be high in salt – something for consumers to be aware of,” Dr. Duane Mellor, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says.

Other than minimizing one’s intake of synthetic bangers, Mellor says a health-minded plant-based dieter could also benefit from keeping their shopping basket as “naked” as possible.

“In terms of health effects, they're [plant-based “meats”] going to be minus some of the nutrients,” he says. “Possibly they’re going to be a low fat, low salt, protein alternative to meat. If you start wrapping it in breadcrumbs, if you start wrapping it in pastry, if you start adding it to a creamy, rich sauce – it might be slightly better than the meat alternative – but it’s not going to be a healthy option. A sausage roll is still a sausage roll. A chicken Kyiv is still a Kyiv. You’ve still got all that fat in there, that salt.”

“If it’s closer to the naked meat version, it might be technically ultra-processed,” he continued, “but it hasn’t got all those things that bind it together,” he adds. “Is it going to have any negative health benefits? Probably not, apart from you needing to replace those key vitamins and minerals you might be missing out on.”

Unsurprisingly, producers of plant-based meat alternatives have a slightly different outlook on the position such foods should have in our diets.

Like Mellor, Andy Shovel, founder of THIS, the third largest meat substitute manufacturer the UK, acknowledges that fake meats can have their unhealthier qualities when compared to plant products like vegetables and legumes. However, he says, THIS’s products aren’t substituting vegetables and legumes – they’re substituting meat.

“It’s funny, because some people say, ‘Well, they’re not healthy products.’ And you’re like, ‘Well, are you comparing them to an aubergine [eggplant], or a salad? Or are you comparing them to the meat products that we’re trying to substitute out?’” Shovel told Technology Networks during an Ask Me Anything webinar held earlier this year.

“You can’t compare our plant-based bacon to ratatouille. You have to compare it to pork bacon, because that’s what we’re trying to substitute. And when you do that – our plant-based bacon and bacon – it’s like night and day in terms of health,” he said. “We’ve got, like, five percent of the fat, two percent of the saturated fat, [and] we’ve got half the salt. So, I think it’s always important that people make really fair comparisons with absolute parity between the meat version and our version when thinking about nutrition.”

So, is fake meat healthy?

Based off existing research, it appears meat alternatives made from mycoprotein and soy can come with some unwholesome properties. Many products are high in sugars and lacking in the essential nutrients like B12 that their fleshier counterparts offer. And while most meat analogs are lower in saturated fats than the fleshy foods they’re aping, these fat values have a wide range over different products and brands; veggie sausages, in particular, appear to recreate the unhealthy qualities of their meaty lookalikes more than most substitutes.

And yet, by several measures, many of these products are still healthier than the real-deal fleshy foods. With a little B12 and iron supplementation, they could offer a healthier option for those wanting to eat less meat, which is the exact kind of substitution the manufacturers say their products are intended for.

The consensus is clear that diets filled with plant products, cooked from scratch, offer bountiful benefits to human health. If such a diet included the odd veggie burger rather than the odd genuine burger, it’s hard to imagine any substantial harm to health, accounting for adequate B12 and zinc intake, too.

About the interviewees

Dr. Duane Mellor is an award-winning registered dietitian and science communicator.

Andy Shovel is an entrepreneur and influential figure in the sphere of sustainable food innovation in the UK.