Plant-Based Proteins: All they’re cracked up to be?

By Emily Murwin

Plant-based foods are having a major moment. Everywhere you look, there are ads for animal alternatives. Places like Chipotle, Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Burger King, and KFC are offering plant-based meats, milks, and desserts. Companies like Beyond Meat and Lightlife Foods are offering remarkably meat-like burgers, sausages, and ground ‘beef’ in grocery stores everywhere. Gone are the days of tofu and sad salads; here are the days of plant-based burgers that will fool even the most seasoned of carnivores.

There are many reasons people opt to eat plant-based foods. Some want to reduce their environmental impact, some do not want to eat animals for ethical reasons, and others believe that the plant-based alternatives are healthier. The last reason can be somewhat contentious. Many opponents of plant-based foods claim that meat replacements are less healthy than their meat alternatives because they are highly processed. While it is true that the ingredient lists for these products are much longer than those of meat, determining which is healthier is not so cut and dry.

There are many factors that determine the health of a single food. For those focused on eating whole, unprocessed foods, perhaps plant-based meat alternatives will not be a staple. However, the argument is often that animal meat is healthier because of the lack of processing and ingredients; this is an extremely problematic argument. There are many poor health outcomes associated with meat intake, especially red meat intake, so it is unfair to assume that a product with more ingredients is automatically unhealthy. Additionally, nobody is looking at burgers as health foods to begin with; along the same vein, nobody is claiming these plant-based products to be healthy. However, despite the longer ingredient list, it is difficult to truly determine which product is ‘healthier.’ There are a number of factors that go into determining the healthiness of any single food.

One of the biggest factors in this debate is the protein source. Animal and plant protein both have their respective merits, so it is difficult to objectively determine which is better for overall health and well-being. We as Americans tend to get far more protein than we need. With that protein often comes saturated fat and cholesterol, two things found almost exclusively in animal products. We also tend not to eat enough fiber in our diets; fiber is found exclusively in plant foods.

A pair of recent studies compared the health outcomes of animal and plant protein intake. The initial study, published in 2016, was performed in the United States. The follow-up study, published in 2019, was performed in Japan. Each study followed subjects for over 20 years. In these large cohort studies, vast amount of information was collected, including dietary patterns via food frequency questionnaires. Both studies reached the same basic conclusion: greater plant protein intake is associated with lower overall risk of mortality. The studies found the same association between plant protein intake and risk of death from heart disease. Additionally, those who substituted protein from red or processed meats with plant protein had lower overall risk of mortality, as well as lower risks of dying from cancer and heart disease. Both studies suggest that a move toward plant-based protein sources could help people live longer, healthier lives.

So next time you are craving a burger, keep this information in mind. Although many of these plant-based meats are certainly not health foods, there is strong evidence to suggest that they are still better than their animal-based alternatives. Does this mean you can eat these alternatives every day, since they’re plant protein-based? No, certainly not. They should still be occasional foods–you’re not going to lose weight by eating an Impossible Whopper every day. However, if the choice is between a beef burger and a plant-based alternative, consider your health and future well-being, and consider choosing plants.

Peer-edited by Kaylee Helfrich

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