More Americans are trying to eat more plants or less meat — 53%, according to an August 2021 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 2,165 adults.
Of course, not everyone is ready to trade sirloin for tofu. So this current crop of plant-based meat — which includes burgers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, as well as fillets from Good Catch and sausages from MorningStar Farms Incogmeato — aims to be guilt-free for vegetarians and animal lovers yet meaty enough for carnivores. We’re not talking about your granddad’s black bean burgers here. These aim to look like, taste like and have the texture of meat.
But speaking as someone who spent a decade as a vegetarian and 30 years enjoying ribs in the summer and turkey in the fall, as well as 50 cent wings every Thursday night of my college career, reading the ingredients and the Nutrition Facts labels on these products can make you wonder what exactly is in these new-fangled foods and whether they really are better for you, and the world.
To find out, CR looked at 32 plant-based burgers, fillets, nuggets, and sausages, comparing them on taste and nutrition. We also dug into the research and talked with nutritionists and environmental scientists to answer common questions about these brave new foods.
What’s in plant-based meat?
For some consumers, what’s not in it — namely, animals — is reason enough to give it a try. Others, however, are put off by what is in it — namely, a long list of unfamiliar ingredients. In fact, 19% of people in a 2020 nationwide survey by Mattson, a food research firm, cited “too many ingredients I can’t pronounce” as a reason to take a pass.
Creating meat from plants takes some doing. Most start with a protein, often pea or soy, to provide structure. These aren’t the whole foods, but concentrates and isolates extracted in a lab. Oil is added to make the food juicy and tender. Binding agents, such as methylcellulose, starch, and gums, give texture.
Some manufacturers fortify the products with nutrients, such as vitamin B12, so they’re closer to meat. One of the fish replacers — from Gardein — had added omega-3s, the heart-healthy fats in fish. The products also contain meaty flavorings and colorings, though the details are often proprietary.
Which taste most like meat?
None were identical — but some came close, and our panel of sensory experts judged at least one in each category to be very good. “It was the overall flavor profile that gave the impression of meat,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist who oversaw our testing.
Among the burgers, Impossible and Beyond’s were the most meatlike. Impossible’s Chicken Nuggets came “closest to tasting like a typical chicken nugget,” and MorningStar Farm’s Veggie Chik’n Strips shredded “like chicken breast,” Keating says. Three pork pretenders—Beyond Meat’s breakfast and sweet Italian sausages and MorningStar’s breakfast links — were reminiscent of the real thing. Gardein’s fish-and-chip-style fillets and Good Catch’s patties were at least somewhat fishlike.
Of course, food doesn’t have to taste like meat to taste good. And CR’s testers rated several without a meaty taste highly, including Boca’s All American Veggie Burgers and Quorn’s Meatless Nuggets.
Do they cost less than real meat?
No, at least not now. In early April 2022, a pound of ground beef in the U.S. averaged $3.99 per pound; boneless chicken breast, $4.14. The least expensive plant-based meat in our tests was a Tofurky sausage at $5.71 per pound. The priciest: Daring’s chicken, at $16 per pound.
The differential may diminish in coming years if meat prices continue to rise and plant-based meat production becomes more efficient and competitive. For example, Amazon Fresh just launched a “budget friendly” line of plant-based meat including Chick’n Nuggets for about $6.30 a pound and plant burger patties for $6.40.
Are plant-based meats healthier?
That’s the main reason people say they’re interested in plant-based meats, CR’s survey found. But it’s not clear that they always are healthier.
Many products in CR’s test had fewer calories and less artery-clogging saturated fat. The sausages, for example, had less per serving than the 6 grams in a serving of Jimmy Dean Fully Cooked sausage. But that wasn’t true across the board.
While eight of the burgers had less saturated fat than what’s in 85% lean ground beef, two — Gardein’s and Impossible’s — had more. “Some of these mock burgers have highly saturated coconut or palm oil,” Keating says. “That’s because they melt slowly, giving a similar mouthfeel to animal fats.”
Most of the products CR looked at — unlike real meat — had lots of sodium, which can raise blood pressure. In general, the plant-based sausages, breaded chicken nuggets, and fish fillets had amounts similar to those in their counterparts from the farm and sea. But nuggets from Raised & Rooted had more sodium than Tyson’s real ones.
No surprise: Plant-based proteins have more fiber (meat doesn’t have any). Most don’t have a lot — less than 3 grams per serving — though MorningStar’s Incogmeato patties have 8 grams. That’s almost a third of the daily value, and comparable to what you’d get from a serving of whole plant proteins, such as beans.
What about those added ingredients?
That is a worry. Lots of evidence supports plant-based diets, but most comes from research involving whole foods, says Basheerah Enahora, RD, who has a plant-forward nutrition counseling practice in Charlotte, N.C. That means lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains, and modest amounts of poultry, fish, and low-fat red meat.
These mock meats are plant-based — but they’re not whole foods. And that raises concerns among nutrition pros because growing research links ultraprocessed foods to increased risks of heart disease, weight gain, and more.
It’s not clear whether processed “meats” pose the same risks, says Stephan van Vliet, PhD, of the Center for Human Nutrition Studies at Utah State University in Logan. “Not all ultraprocessed foods are bad,” he says, citing soy and almond milks as healthy examples.
Still, van Vliet, the lead author of a study comparing grass-fed and plant-based burgers, sees important differences between the two. Notably, whole foods contain thousands of compounds in addition to those listed on nutrition labels. “Foods are more complex than the sum of their parts,” he says. “It’s challenging to put together a replacement that contains them all.”
It can be a struggle to include even some familiar nutrients. One study found that swapping animal products with plant-based meat and dairy makes it harder to get enough calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and — especially — vitamin B12, which is found naturally only in animal foods. Among products CR looked at, only five — two “chickens” and three “burgers” — had that vitamin added.
Trying to recreate the benefits of whole foods can raise other issues. Impossible’s burgers, for example, have soy leghemoglobin, a compound created from soybean roots that’s chemically similar to the heme iron in meat. Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown says it “produces the explosion of flavor and aroma when you throw a burger on a grill.” But some research links the heme in beef to colon cancer. “So in theory an Impossible Burger may pose a similar problem,” says Michael Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist at CR.
Which have the most protein?
The makers of plant-based meats play up protein: 27 of the 32 products CR tested come with a protein claim. In some cases, the amounts are fairly close to what’s in the real thing. For example, a MorningStar Farms Meat Lovers burger has 27 grams and No Evil Foods “chicken” strips have 25 grams.
While protein is essential, the average American gets plenty. Much of it does come from meat, which raises concerns, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, a dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. She says meat protein is inflammatory, which could make tumors grow faster and pose other health issues. That suggests that getting more protein from plants could be a good thing. Some of that could come from faux meats — or from beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, and nut butters. “There’s some protein in many foods, and small amounts add up,” Keating says.
Are they really better for the environment?
That is the second-most-common reason people give for trying plant-based meats, CR’s survey found. And meat clearly contributes to climate change: The way we grow, transport, and consume food accounts for about a third of the planet-heating gases created by humans, with animal-based foods causing twice as much as plant-based ones, according to a 2021 study in the journal Nature Food.
Beef alone accounts for roughly half the emissions linked to U.S. diets but provides just 3% of the calories. It also takes about 110 gallons of water to produce a pound of rice, compared with 1,840 gallons for a pound of beef.
So moving toward plant-based proteins can be a powerful way to address climate change. And a 2020 analysis led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that plant-based meats could help, with a carbon footprint about 90% smaller than beef’s and 40% less than poultry’s. On the other hand, they’re 1.6 to seven times more energy-intensive than tofu, peas, or other less processed plant proteins. And beef raised with sustainable farming practices, such as pasturing fewer cattle on grass and tilling waste into soil, may produce fewer greenhouse gases, too.
The bottom line
Nutritionist Enahora sees these foods as a mixed bag but thinks that if they help you move toward a plant-based diet, that’s good. “Starting with plant meat might make sense if you’re not relying on it every day and you’re including whole foods,” she says. Shanika Whitehurst, associate director of product sustainability, research, and testing at CR, agrees, especially on the issue of climate change. “Even being heavily processed,” she says, “plant meat has less of an environmental impact than industrial animal production.”
Click HERE to review Consumer Reports’ mock meat ratings.