Focus on Fitness: Plant-based ‘meat’ is trendy, but is it healthy?

By Gloria Schwartz

Some environmentalists claim it’ll save the planet. Some vegans believe it’ll help end animal cruelty. Some people think it’s healthier than meat. I’m referring to a recent addition to the Canadian food industry, a product marketed as “plant-based meat.” Is this meat alternative really a healthy source of protein, or just an over-hyped Frankenburger?

Television and radio advertisements for A&W and Tim Hortons recently caught my attention. I was intrigued by A&W’s “Beyond Meat Burger,” as well as both chains’ plant-based ‘sausage’ patties.

Red meat consumption is associated with increased risk of some cancers and other chronic diseases. Eating less red meat in favour of alternative proteins is recommended in the 2019 edition of “Canada’s Food Guide.”

Plant-based ‘meat’ is being touted as a healthy food; but whether you purchase it as ready-to-eat burgers or in breakfast sandwiches at fast food restaurants, or raw at grocery stores, it’s a highly-processed product. The term “plant-based meat” is marketing genius aimed to convince consumers these engineered food products are made from whole vegetables and as tasty as meat. The Beyond Meat brand’s plant-based meat contains pea protein isolate. Peas are dehydrated and grinded into a powder. The fibre and some nutrients are removed during the extraction process. Beyond Meat also contains canola oil and refined coconut oil, which adds saturated fat. There are 18 other ingredients such as beet juice extract (to provide a blood-like appearance when you cook the raw plant-based ‘meat’), maltodextrin (sugar powder made from potato starch, corn, wheat or rice, which rates high on the glycemic index) and various preservatives and flavour enhancers such as salt. It doesn’t take a dietician to conclude that this product – like many vegan products – is not really healthy. The ‘sausage’ patty contains most of the same ingredients and is fortified with some vitamins and minerals.

Canadian grocery stores have started selling plant-based ‘beef’ for consumers who want a meat alternative that looks and feels more like beef than veggie burgers. Plant-based ‘meat’, certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, may soon be available in Canada from a company called Impossible Foods.

Are A&W’s plant-based ‘meats’ a healthy choice or just a different choice? Weight- and health-conscious people don’t typically eat at fast food chains. If you do eat there, a combo with fries and a sugar-laden soft drink will provide a fattening 1200 calories.

A&W’s 3-ounce Beyond Meat plant-based burger (with bun, toppings and seasoning) provides 20 grams of protein, 500 calories, 1,110 mg of sodium, and five grams of saturated fat. A&W’s 3-ounce beef Mama Burger has the same protein, 100 fewer calories, 260 fewer mg of sodium and two more grams of saturated fat. Neither is a wise choice if you have hypertension or are trying to lose weight. The store-bought patties have 290 calories and 450 mg of sodium. A store-bought unseasoned beef patty has fewer calories and 90 per cent less sodium. If you want a non-meat protein, choose whole foods such as lentils (115 calories and 12 grams of protein per cup) and beans (335 calories and 20 grams of protein per half-cup), both low in sodium and high in fibre.

You’ll have to fork over an extra couple of bucks at A&W for the plant-based burger ($6.99) versus the equivalent-sized beef Mama Burger ($4.89). Beyond Meat is also more expensive than ground beef at grocery stores.

Since I stopped eating at fast-food restaurants over a decade ago, I recruited my husband as a taste-tester. He was eager to indulge. On a scale of 1 to 10, he rated the plant-based patty at 5. He didn’t care for the texture or taste. He said it was mushy. However, when he ate it hidden in the bun and toppings, he rated it 7. My 21-year-old son reluctantly took a bite of the patty and rated it 3. It didn’t look like quality ground beef to me. Then again, neither does fast-food hamburger meat. When I told my 18-year-old son about the taste test, he volunteered to try Tim Hortons’ plant-based ‘sausage’ with egg and cheese on an English muffin. He rated it 7.

I like to be informed. When I eat cake, I know it’s a treat. If you’re striving to maintain a balanced diet with occasional treats for pleasure, you might consider plant-based ‘meat’ a source of protein that’s more of a convenience food than a health food.