Everything That's Not Healthy About Plant-Based Meat Substitutes

According to Clemson University, the terms "meat substitutes" and "meat alternatives" are used to refer to the same type of food products. However, under that broad umbrella of meat alternatives are several categories, like fermentation-based and cell-based. But the one that you're the most likely to find at your local supermarket at this time is plant-based.

Besides understanding that there are different categories of meat substitutes, there have been questions about whether or not plant-based ones are healthy. As Medical News Today explains, we can get vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from foods that have ingredients from plants. Registered dietitian Dena Champion told Ohio State Wexner Medical Center that making plants one's main source of protein could reduce the chances of developing such health problems as cancer and hypertension. However, Better Homes & Gardens notes that plant-based meats are processed, and that alone can lower their plant ingredients' nutritional value. What's more, plant-based products aren't always suitable for a vegan diet since they can contain animal products.

As Champion explained to Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, how healthy a plant-based product is can vary, and she states that some " ... are nutritionally worse or no better than their meat counterparts." So, we'll be exploring some of the concerns regarding plant-based meat substitutes both in terms of one's general health, as well as specific health issues like allergies.

They can have significant amounts of sodium

As Everyday Health notes, various fast food establishments now carry plant-based meat substitutes, including the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. However, as registered dietitian Allison J. Stowell explained to Everyday Health, the sodium in these plant-based burgers can be higher than the sodium in not just beef burgers but also turkey burgers.

According to the FDA, table salt and sodium aren't technically the same thing. Sodium is actually a part of table salt. Also, cutting 100% of the sodium from your diet isn't a good idea since we do need the right amount of sodium to properly function. With that said, too much sodium increases the amount of water in one's bloodstream, and that can lead to developing high blood pressure. And once this happens, there's a greater chance of experiencing kidney disease, blindness, and stroke, as well as heart failure and heart attack.

Whether you're concerned about the sodium in plant-based meat substitutes or in your diet in general, a good way to start monitoring and better controlling your sodium intake is to check the Nutrition Facts labels on foods (via FDA). This includes the condiments you use on plant-based burgers. And, of course, exercising proper portion control is not only a good way to reduce sodium but also key to a healthy meal plan.

They can contain egg

According to registered dietitian Dena Champion, it's possible for a food that falls under the label "plant-based" to contain egg, per Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. And for some individuals, that means avoiding such plant-based meat substitutes for health reasons.

Per the Mayo Clinic, the proteins found in eggs can cause an allergic reaction. Typically, this is more common in children and even infants, but adults can also have this food allergy. So, if someone with an egg allergy ate a plant-based meat substitute that contains eggs, they could start experiencing symptoms as quickly as within a few minutes (although this is not always the case). And just as when symptoms begin can vary, so too can the symptoms themselves, which can be anywhere from mild to severe. Signs of an egg allergy can include shortness of breath, a runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest. Feeling nauseous and vomiting can also occur because of an egg allergy, as well as hives. And, yes, a person with an egg allergy can experience anaphylaxis, which is extremely dangerous and requires immediate medical intervention.

Beyond checking the ingredients in plant-based foods, someone with an egg allergy might want to get checked for other allergies. As the Mayo Clinic points out, having an egg allergy can make one more likely to have allergies to other foods like peanuts, as well as non-food ones like dust mites.

They can be high in saturated fats

Sometimes people opt for the meatless versions of foods like burgers for health reasons. However, as Harvard notes, meatless burgers can have large amounts of saturated fat. To demonstrate, Harvard compared the amount of saturated fat in 4 ounces, respectively, of the following foods: the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger, ground turkey, and 85% lean ground beef.

While the ground beef had more saturated fat than the Beyond Burger, the Impossible Burger had the most saturated fat of all four food items, and the ground turkey had the least amount. Harvard also compared the amount of saturated fat in a Sunshine Non-GMO Original brand black bean burger. Although the black bean burger only had 1 gram of saturated fat (lower than the ground turkey), its size was 2.5 ounces instead of 4 ounces. Knowing how much saturated fat is in a food is important because consuming too much of it can be detrimental to one's health. For example, large amounts of saturated fat can lead to higher amounts of LDL cholesterol (or what's called bad cholesterol), and this can increase the chances of developing other issues like heart disease, via Medline Plus.

Beyond checking the saturated fat on Nutrition Facts labels (as Medline Plus recommends), check the ingredients in plant-based meat substitutes. For instance, Forbes notes that some alternative meats use coconut oil. And Medline Plus explains that coconut oil is high in saturated fat.

Their ingredients can include gluten

According to the Mayo Clinic, gluten is a type of protein. And as Clemson University explains, it's very common for plant-based meat alternatives to include more than one protein source, which can include wheat gluten. And while we often hear about avoiding foods that contain gluten in relation to celiac disease, there are other health problems where keeping gluten off the menu is essential.

Before we explore these other conditions, however, let's better understand celiac disease. The Mayo Clinic points out that when someone with this autoimmune disorder consumes gluten, a domino effect takes place where the gluten sets off the immune system, which in turn damages the small intestine. Celiac disease can cause problems like brain fog, diarrhea, abdominal pain, constipation, and bloating. Eventually, the damage to the small intestine can interfere with how the body absorbs nutrients. However, a person can also experience non-celiac gluten sensitivity, where consuming gluten doesn't damage the small intestine but can still cause issues like the ones listed above. Also, a person can have gluten ataxia, which can negatively impact voluntary muscle movement as well as muscle control.

In addition, gluten can be a factor when someone has a wheat allergy (via Mayo Clinic). Red flags of this condition can include problems breathing, hives, swelling of the skin, headache, nasal congestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even anaphylaxis, which can be deadly, per Mayo Clinic.

They can contain added sugars

Sweetness isn't usually the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of meats and meat substitutes. However, as Better Homes & Gardens points out, there are plant-based meat alternatives that contain added sugars.

According to the FDA, there are several different types of added sugars. For example, if a manufacturer adds sucrose or dextrose to a food, then that food contains added sugars. Other examples of added sugars include sweeteners like table sugar, as well as the sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices, syrups, and honey. And as Harvard points out, manufacturers use added sugars not just to give their products certain flavors but also because added sugars can increase the shelf-life of food products. But as Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains, "The effects of added sugar intake — higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease — are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke."

So, does this mean you should avoid all plant-based meat substitutes that contain added sugars? Not necessarily. The FDA notes that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans allow for some added sugars in one's daily diet. Still, speak with a healthcare professional, especially if you have any medical conditions that might be impacted by sugar consumption. And, of course, be a conscientious consumer and compare food products like plant-based meat substitutes to find the best ones to fit your health needs.

Can plant-based meat substitutes contain soy?

Soy protein is a common ingredient in plant-based meat alternatives (via Clemson University). And like other foods on this list, it's possible to be allergic to soy, per Cleveland Clinic. Now, you might have heard that this is a food allergy that only affects infants and children, but this isn't the case. Yes, it's less likely for an adult to have this allergy, but technically, it can develop at any time in one's life.

If one has a soy allergy, then eating, for example, a plant-based meat substitute that contains soy can set off that person's immune system, resulting in a range of potential symptoms, including indigestion, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well as skin problems like hives, itching, and eczema. according to the Cleveland Clinic. A person with a soy allergy might also experience coughing and tightness in the throat. And this allergy can also cause a sometimes fatal reaction known as anaphylaxis. Red flags of anaphylaxis can include dizziness, problems breathing, a drop in blood pressure, confusion, and an increase in one's heart rate.

Besides a soy allergy, there has been debate about whether or not soy is healthy in general, via Harvard. For instance, there are claims that soy might increase or decrease the chances of developing breast cancer. According to Harvard, the former's claims " ... have not been substantiated." Nevertheless, you might want to speak with a health care professional before adding soy to your diet.

Plant-based meat substitutes can contain additives

Sometimes the ingredients listed on a food can include items you might not have ever heard of before. For example, Better Homes & Gardens states that plant-based meat alternatives can have additives, including one called carrageenan. This is a bulking agent, which, as Oxford University explains, gives foods just that, more bulk.

According to Healthline, carrageenan has been considered a controversial ingredient since the 1960s. Yes, it does come from something natural (red seaweed), and the FDA has approved it for use. But there have been studies (albeit limited studies) that show possible connections between carrageenan and health problems like irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, glucose intolerance, bloating, and even color cancer. There are also findings supporting the notion that carrageenan and inflammation might go hand in hand, which could raise the chances of developing such medical problems as chronic cholecystitis, as well as tendonitis and arthritis.

In addition, processing carrageenan with acid results in degraded carrageenan, per Medical News Today. Also known as poligeenan, WebMD points out that there are concerns about degraded carrageenan harming the colon and potentially causing colon cancer. Medical News Today notes that cancer isn't the only potential health concern regarding poligeenan. But while carrageenan is approved as a food additive, poligeenan isn't. With that said, this doesn't mean that it's impossible for food to contain poligeenan (via WebMD).