Identifying the healthiest plant-based meat alternatives
As research increases on plant-based diets and potential benefits in preventing and reducing chronic diseases, we see an exponential growth in meat-alternative options on the market. Conflicting opinions about them are everywhere.
What we know about plant-based diets based on epidemiologic studies, is that replacing red meat with nuts, legumes like lentils, peas, soy, beans, and other plant-based protein foods is associated with a lower risk of chronic disease and total mortality. Randomized clinical trials have also demonstrated that replacing meat with plants reduces levels of total and LDL cholesterol.
Now you might be wondering, why would meat alternatives be a concern? Some of the products we find at the grocery store can be highly processed. Food processing to enhance palatability may not only lead to the loss of some nutrients and phytochemicals naturally present in minimally processed plant foods, but it can also increase calories which can potentially lead to weight gain.
For these reasons, when talking about plant-based meat it is important to look at the protein being used to replace animal meat. Some meat-alternative products contain added proteins like pea or soy protein, making them more comparable to animal meat in protein content. However, these are typically more processed than those made with “whole food” plant-based ingredients (like vegetables, nuts, and grains) and can come with additional additives and fillers.
Another thing to keep an eye on is the sodium level. Since most plant-based meat alternatives are pre-seasoned, they may also be high in added sodium. This is especially important to keep in mind if you are watching your sodium intake.
To help you find the best meat alternative for your needs, begin by checking the ingredients on nutrition labels. Aim to select a product that is made with whole food ingredients that you can easily identify, such as beans, whole grains, legumes, nuts, or seeds.
Many meat alternatives contain potential allergens such as soy and gluten. Consider your individual health needs and allergy profile when choosing a plant-based option.
Look for products that contain adequate amounts of protein (at least 7 grams of protein per serving). Less-processed plant proteins such as tofu, whole grains, legumes, and beans are preferred protein sources compared to more-processed soy isolates, textured vegetable protein (TVP), and wheat gluten because the less processed forms retain more of the nutrients and benefits of the original food.
Look for low sodium (less than 500 milligrams) as the recommendation is 2,300 milligrams per day. Lastly, prioritize items with low saturated fats (less than 2 grams). Generally, look for products that contain mostly healthy, whole-food ingredients to maximize the nutrient intake in your diet.