With more and more people reducing the meat in their diets - either for health, financial or environmental reasons - restaurants and food producers are taking note and adjusting their offerings to cater to vegetarian, vegan and “flexitarian” diets.
One of the more exciting trends has been the rise in plant-based “meat” products like burgers, sausages and meatballs that have a taste and texture that’s closer to actual meat than ever. Even for diehard vegetarians, that meatiness can feel really satisfying and provide more options for filling meals.
Brands like Beyond Meat and Lightlife have been exploding in popularity and have even been featured on the menus of top fast-food chains. But what’s actually in these “meats”? Are they healthier? Why are they so expensive?
Although not the only ingredient, the most common ingredient in the newer meatless “meats” is pea protein made from dried and ground yellow peas.
A complete protein is one that contains all 9 essential amino acids. “Essential”, in terms of food, means it’s something our bodies can’t produce themselves, so we need to get it through our diets.
Meat contains complete protein and there aren’t many sources of complete protein in the plant world (quinoa and buckwheat are 2 others). Now, many people take that to mean you can’t get adequate protein from a plant-based diet and that simply isn’t true. When combined, different plant-based foods create complete proteins and, of course, there are always supplements as an option.
On the other hand, pea protein made from yellow peas is a complete protein.
If you’re reducing your meat intake to reduce your grocery bill, these products are not going to help. It all comes down to supply and demand. The ingredients used to make the products, as well as the products themselves, just aren’t as high in demand (yet) as more established products, so cost is still high.
This can change if more people buy them. If the trend really catches on, supply chains will become more established and costs will, ideally, drop. Either the current brands will lower their prices, or other players will come in to take advantage of the lower ingredient cost and start offering budget-friendly alternatives. Usually, store brands like President’s Choice are some of the first to do this, so keep an eye out.
Burgers, meatballs and sausages are delicious - in large part - because of the salt and fat content. That’s true for meat-based and plant-based products. There’s this tendency to think of vegetarian as healthier, but that’s not always true. Especially if you’re in this for health reasons, do pay attention to the salt, fat and even sugar content of the products you’re buying.
We don’t give fibre enough credit, nor do most of us eat enough in our diets. Just what does fibre do? So many things. It can help control blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels, help us feel fuller for longer and more. There’s a good summary here about why we need fibre. You may also find it surprising just how much we’re supposed to be getting each day! Meat and animal products do not contain any fibre. But, many meat alternatives are packed with it!
There are 2 types of iron we get from food: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is only found naturally in meat and animal products. It is also the easiest type of iron for our bodies to absorb. Non-heme iron is found naturally in plant products. It can be harder for our bodies to absorb and use non-heme iron, although we can increase our absorption by consuming something rich in vitamin C at the same time.
Impossible Foods - one of the companies producing these plant-based meat alternatives - has actually found a way to create heme iron from fermented yeast, meaning their products can contain heme iron without containing any meat. Isn’t science amazing?
Whatever your reason for reducing, or eliminating, the meat in your diet, plant-based “meat” products can be very tasty and satisfying, which can really help you to not miss meat. That said, we do still need to pay attention to what’s in them and what impact that may have on our bodies. Things like fibre and iron can be great, but if salt or fat are concerning for you, be sure to read labels as not all products are created equal. If cost is a concern, opt for less expensive options like tofu, lentils and beans until costs come down (and hopefully they will soon) on plant-based burgers, sausages and other meat alternatives.
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