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Fake meat or the real thing? This soy-based product can be made to "bleed" red just like animal flesh. Image source: Anthony Lindsay Photography/Impossible Foods

Fake meat may be getting a lot of play, but is it healthy?

This summer, fake meat went mainstream. It felt like every restaurant chain was boasting meat-free versions of their menu options. Products like The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat moved confidently to the frozen food section. Even the most committed carnivores tried meat replacement burgers, chick’n fillets, and kale sausages. When products advertised themselves as reputable substitutes to meat, they emphasized their texture and taste. Like the Pepsi challenge of the 1980s, meat eaters were being fooled into accidentally eating vegan — and they weren’t complaining.

Veggie burgers have come a long way. Once constructed from peas, corn, and some sort of sawdust-like binding agent, it was rare to find a vegetarian option that didn’t need to be smothered in sauces to become edible. As soy products evolved with a societal demand, and we learned that being meat-free didn’t mean we were relegated to soft tofu, vegetarian brands became supermarket staples. For many people, the flexitarian lifestyle (eating a mostly vegetarian diet, occasionally including meat) is a healthy solution.

It’s rare that your vegan best friend will complain that they miss the taste and texture of beef or the crackle of chicken skin. When you think about it, meat replacement products that boast these attributes are geared towards the occasional meat eater. So if you love the taste of a burger, but find the sustainability of raising cattle hard to stomach, beefless alternatives are worth a try. Plant-based burgers use less water and generate less greenhouse gases.  

But, let’s not lie to ourselves. A burger is a burger. And a burger, impossible or not, is not healthy. They contain mostly soy or wheat protein, as well as added preservatives, salt, flavourings, and fillers to enhance its taste, shelf life, and texture. The Impossible Burger has more sodium with 370 milligrams, or about 16 percent of the recommended daily ceiling versus 82 milligrams in a beef burger

Would I recommend switching to these new meatless products for health? The simple answer is no. If you are sensitive to soy, salt, or wheat, these new burgers should be avoided. There are other alternatives, though they have not received the benefit of the buzz media cycle, that contain whole grains and legumes that would be a considerable alternative. They are the more traditional veggie burgers and contain less genetically modified and processed ingredients. 

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional burger — be it beef, turkey, chicken, soy, or bean. While increasing options to suit all dietary restrictions is a positive step, we have to educate ourselves about our choices. We also have to be truthful and ask ourselves why are we deciding to eat something — is it for ethical reasons, or because we think it is better for us? By questioning the hype cycle, and becoming informed consumers, we can make better choices for ourselves and for the welfare of the planet.  

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