Plant-based burgers, patties, and nuggets are an easy way to go meatless. Find out if plant-based meat is a smart pick for your family.
Are you trying to serve more meatless meals?
A lot of families are. Nearly one in four Americans report eating less meat in the last year, according to a Gallup poll.
But people have different ideas (and comfort levels!) around going meatless.
There are some who don’t want anything that looks or feels remotely like meat when they’re going meatless–because, they say, isn’t that the whole point?
But others really crave meat and center most meals around it. For those families, plant-based meats can make going meatless easier, sliding right into familiar favorites like spaghetti and stir-fries.
You can toss the burgers on the grill, zap the nuggets in the microwave, or pan fry the patties, making it convenient to go meatless more often.
I buy and like some “alt-meat” myself–especially the faux-chicken patties (so good chopped up on top of a big salad) and veggie meatballs and crumbles (easy for a meatless pasta night).
But are these plant-based meats healthier and better for our families than regular meat? Here are the answers to your biggest questions.
Is Plant-Based Meat Good For Your Family?
What’s in these products?
Even folks like myself who like and use plant-based meats can feel a little dismayed by the ingredient lists, which tend to be lengthy. Here are the basic components in these products:
- A protein base: This is usually a protein isolate or concentrate, which is made by extracting protein from an ingredient. For these, that’s typically soybeans or peas.
- Oils like coconut: This provides juiciness.
- Thickeners: Ingredients like methyl cellulose hold the patties, links, or nuggets together.
- Natural colors: Plant juices & extract from veggies like beets and paprika give a red “meaty” color.
- Flavors and seasonings
All of these ingredients are obviously considered safe. But put together, it often adds up to what’s now called an “ultra-processed” product.
That’s a term for products that contain multiple added ingredients like dyes, stabilizers, and emulsifiers, and contain very little intact, unprocessed foods. Some research shows that a diet heavy in ultra-processed foods isn’t healthy and may increase the risk of diseases like cancer. (Here’s my advice on ultra-processed foods.)
Is plant-based meat healthy for you?
Healthy-ish. The good news: These faux-meats are typically great sources of protein. Unlike regular meat, they don’t have any cholesterol and some of them contain fiber.
But they can still be high in calories and contain saturated fat because of the oils used to make them juicy. Many of these products are also high in sodium. The Impossible Whopper at Burger King has more sodium, and similar calories and saturated fat, compared to the regular Whopper.
And while fresh meat is not considered “ultra-processed”, these products are. Yes, packaged, processed foods are a fact of life for most families (including mine) but reducing them makes sense. So for me, these packaged, plant-based meats aren’t something I use as an everyday staple.
If your child has food allergies, it’s also important to note that some people who are allergic to peanuts may also react to pea protein, which is used in some plant-based meats. If your child has had even a mild reaction to legumes, talk to your allergist about getting tested and read labels for pea protein.
Beyond Meat, which uses pea protein, includes this statement on their products: “Peas are legumes. People with severe allergies to legumes like peanuts should be cautious when introducing pea protein into their diet because of the possibility of a pea allergy.”
The protein concentration is much higher in these products than in fresh peas, so an allergic reaction may be more likely to occur and may be more severe. If your child can’t have legumes, check ingredient lists for ingredients like pea protein isolate, pea protein concentrate, pea fiber, pea hull fiber, and hydrolysed pea protein.
Are these products better for the planet?
Probably, yes. Raising animals for food produces greenhouse gas, the kind that causes global warming. Eating less meat would help climate health, according to a 2019 United Nations report on climate change.
In one study commissioned by Beyond Meat, researchers from the University of Michigan found that producing one Beyond Burger generates 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and requires about half the energy than making a regular beef burger.
Researchers say making the packaging for meat-free burgers actually creates more greenhouse gas than making the actual patty. I’ve heard from at least one company that they’re actively working to reduce packaging for this reason.
Is plant-based meat more expensive?
Usually, yes. According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based meat is twice as expensive as beef, more than three times as expensive as pork, and more than four times as expensive as chicken per pound.
Here’s a sampling of prices from my local stores compared to prices for name-brand meats:
- Morning Star Farms Chik Patties: $4.99 for 4 patties (versus $2.19 for 4 regular chicken patties)
- Impossible Burger: $6.99 for 2 patties (versus $4.50 for 2 regular beef burgers)
- Beyond Sausage: $8.99 for 4 links (versus $4.80 for 4 regular sausage links)
- Beyond Beef Ground: $9.99 per pound (versus $5.99 for a pound of regular beef)
Is plant-based meat vegan?
Sometimes, but not always. You need to check labels to make sure.
Does plant-based meat taste good?
They’ve come a long way! And there are so many choices now. But like everything else, opinions vary widely.
My kids have eaten the Morning Star Farms Chickenless Patties for years, and I sometimes use the ALDI Earth Grown Meatless Meatballs for spaghetti night.
In a taste test with my son and his friends, these were some of their favorites:
- Raised & Rooted Plant-Based Nuggets
- Beyond Sausage Hot Italian
- Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger
- Pure Farmland Homestyle Meatball
Where can I find these products?
Some grocery stores have a separate section in their freezers and meat cases for plant-based meats. But you might also find them alongside regular burgers, nuggets, and fresh meats.
Is soy safe for kids?
Yes. Many of these “meatless-meat” products are made with soy, which some parents have heard is unhealthy for kids.
Specifically, people worry that the isoflavones, natural plant compounds found in soy that have a similar chemical structure to estrogen, could interfere with puberty and development.
But research hasn’t found this to be true. And girls who eat soy as a teen and young adult may have a lower risk of breast cancer later in life.
Soy is rich in high-quality protein, which means that (like meat) it contains all of the amino acids we need to get from food to build proteins in the body. There’s also evidence that soy foods may help lower risk of heart disease.
As a dietitian, I eat soy–including tofu, edamame, tempeh and soy milk–and feed it to my family,
Less processed forms of soy, like tofu and edamame, are better day-to-day choices than packaged plant-based meats. They’re less processed and have the more complete package of nutrients from soy, like the iron and fiber in edamame. They also have more of the beneficial plant compounds in soy compared to the soy protein isolate in faux-meats.
What about soy and cancer?
The isoflavones in soy don’t increase the risk of cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. In fact, there’s research showing that girls who eat soy as teens and young adults may have a lower risk for breast cancer later in life.
My Advice on Plant-Based Meat as a Dietitian
Read labels. Pick products with shorter, simpler ingredients more often. One to consider: Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger, which contains purees of butternut squash, sweet potato, and carrot.
Consider them occasional-foods. The AICR, which recommends eating mostly whole and minimally processed foods to reduce cancer risk, suggests the same portion limits for these meatless products as they have for red meat: No more than 12-18 ounces a week (that’s roughly 4-6 servings per week, with one meat-free sausage or four meat-free nuggets each counting as a serving).
Consider faux-meat fast food burgers like the Impossible Whopper occasional treats too, just as you would regular fast food burgers.
Serve them alongside whole foods: For instance, build a burrito out of meatless “chicken” pieces with brown rice, beans, avocado, and a homemade sauce. Serve a meatless burger with fresh vegetables and fruit. Toss veggie crumbles into whole wheat pasta with roasted vegetables.
Making your own meatless burgers. Making DIY veggie burgers using ingredients like rice, beans, lentils, and mushrooms is the healthier route. You’ll get the health benefits of the whole ingredients and end up with a much less processed meal.
One meatless burger I’ve made and liked: Pinch of Yum’s Wild Rice Burger
Go meatless with tofu. Soy is a healthy, complete source of protein. And it’s a blank canvas that nicely soaks up whatever flavors you put on it.
My Crunchy Air-Fryer Tofu Nuggets are a fun place to start. And my Kid-Approved Tofu Bowl with Peanut Sauce is a build-your-own, vitamin-packed dinner (for more tips on introducing tofu to your kids, check out my e-book Let’s Try New Foods).