The era of meatless meat is upon us. And it’s not only individuals who are embracing plant-based diets. Large corporations and Wall Street have taken notice and are poised to cash in on the fake meat revolution coming to a fast-food counter near you.
But what exactly is powering this push away from hamburger and towards pea-pod patties? Is a plant-based diet a realistic option, especially for older Americans?
Considerable spoke to dieticians and meatless advocates in order to get a fuller picture of the possible health ramifications of a plant-based diet, as well as some perspective on what exactly a plant-based food future will look like for everyday Americans.
Whether you’ve traded in your beef burger for a vegan patty, there’s no debate over the current success and swagger of meat-free food. Most notably reflected in the booming business of Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based producer of plant-based meat substitutes whose recent IPO was a huge success and whose annual revenue is estimated at over $210 million, according to Investor’s Business Daily.
Beyond Meat products are available in numerous chain restaurants such as Del Taco, Applebee’s, Tim Horton’s and Carl Jr.’s, and there’s some speculation that McDonald’s could soon join that list.
And Beyond Meat isn’t alone in the plant-based and fake meat production industry. They face competition from, among others, Tyson Foods, which has begun a plant-based and blended product unit, and plant-based meat producer Impossible Foods, which already has products that sell at Burger King, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, and Qdoba.
Competition is stiffer than a frozen veggie burger, and it’s only going to get more intense as plant-based and fake-meat diets grow in popularity. The primary reason for this push is two-fold: Eliminating red meat from the diet is viewed by many as a healthy choice with positive long-term effects, and it’s a disruption to what many see as an environmentally wasteful and inhumane meat industry.
So, some folks are choosing plant-based diets strictly for their own health, some for the earth’s health, and some for both.
While arguments against more environmentally conscious and sustainable farming tactics are hard to muster, the debate over the long-term health benefits of a plant-based diet are more robust.
Primarily, can a plant-based diet help you live longer? The answer to that question is not yet totally clear. While there are clear health benefits of replacing tons of red meat with plant-based options, replacing red meat entirely has yet to be proven to increase lifespan.
Too much red meat in your diet can introduce unhealthy levels of cholesterol, fat, saturated fat, nitrates, iron and processed chemicals into your body, increasing the risk of various ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer to name a few.
There can also be dangerous bacteria present in meat that can harm your gut, and digesting red meat can be taxing on the digestive system.
According to Taylor Wolfram, a dietician based in Chicago, trading the red meat for the plant-based diet has straightforward benefits.
According to Wolfram, “When you replace red meat with plant-based protein options such as beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh and plant-based meat, you’re decreasing your risk for those health issues and also getting more fiber and phytonutrients.”
Hence it makes sense to try and limit your red meat consumption and not eat hot dogs and hamburgers seven days a week. But red meat also offers protein, fat and iron that your body needs.
Paul Claybrook, a certified nutritionist in the Tri-Cities region of Washington State, is hesitant simply to label plant-based diets as healthier than a meat-based one. When asked if there are studies that support the idea that a plant-based diet increases longevity, Claybrook said simply, “Not really.”
“Studies do suggest that replacing saturated with unsaturated fats does reduce disease risk and thus expected lifespan,” Claybrook continued. “Red meats do have some of these fats, but not much. Plants usually have almost none. Fish and seafood, however, do tend to be high.
“It is also extremely difficult to do a study like this. For example, plant-eaters often get more vitamins and minerals than meat-eaters, but far less protein. But plant eaters rarely eat too many calories while meat eaters often do.
“Plus, most plant eaters are concerned with their health, and some meat eaters aren’t. In other words, it’s a plus to have fewer calories, but a minus to have too little protein. Thus, it is very difficult to compare the two because there are so many variables.”
It’s also worth noting that some of the popular meatless burgers have similar amounts of calories, sodium, and saturated fat as a regular hamburger, rendering the overall health benefits of the meatless burger less than expected.
Still, there’s little debate that a plant-based diet has many health benefits, and just as importantly carries little risk. The main concern is getting enough protein.
Wolfram thinks replacing the protein from red meat is doable: “As long as someone is eating a variety of plant-based protein foods, including at least three to four servings of legumes per day, they will get all of the protein and amino acids they need.”
As plant-based and fake meat options become more ubiquitous on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, will more people, especially older citizens give it a try?
Citing a Plant Based Foods Association statistic, Wolfram claims millennials are leading the charge on plant-based purchases, but added, “The rise in plant-based alternatives is only expected to grow, as consumers have increasing concerns about the environmental impact of their food choices. As plant-based alternatives become more accessible, more and more people will be switching to them.”
When asked if plant-based food products will continue to grow in popularity, Claybrook was equally assured, answering: “Absolutely.”
“There is a lot of practical application for plant-based proteins. Animal lovers are on board and meat eaters may resist, but only because it is a change, not because they really have a problem with the protein itself.”
So get ready for a meatless burger to be offered to you soon. And who knows? You might not even be able to tell the difference.