Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 05, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 4, 2019 -- Next-generation vegan "meat" like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat has become so popular, it’s available or being tested at more than a dozen chain restaurants ranging from Burger King and Dunkin’ to KFC. Now, some industry groups and others are pushing back.

A pair of congressmen -- one Democrat and one Republican -- have introduced the Real MEAT Act of 2019, which would require faux-meat companies to use the word "imitation" on packaging.

“A growing number of fake meat products are clearly trying to mislead consumers about what they’re trying to get them to buy,” Jennifer Houston, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says in a statement.

And even the CEOs of some leading natural-foods companies have raised concerns.

Last week, the food industry-backed Center for Consumer Freedom ran a full-page ad in The  New York Times with the headline, "What's Hiding in Your Plant-Based Meat?" The ad blasts vegan meats as "ultra-processed imitations with dozens of ingredients." This echoes concerns voiced by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, in an August interview.

“The [brands] who are capturing the imagination of people -- and I’m not going to name these brands because I’m afraid I will be associated with the critique of it,” Mackey told CNBC Make It, “but some of these that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods.”

These newfangled veggie burgers do have longer ingredients lists than a burger made with nothing but ground beef and maybe some salt. And a recent study out of the National Institutes of Health found that people who eat ultra-processed foods tend to take in more calories. But does that automatically make meat substitutes suspect? Not necessarily, says Debbie Petitpain, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutritionally, plant-based meat is lower in fat and offers fiber that red meat doesn't have, without any of beef's cholesterol. It also won't have antibiotics or animal hormones, which are often found in beef.

"It’s similar to other processed foods in sodium content, and it has the potential to crowd out real vegetables, real grains. But the meat analogues definitely have their place," she says. "At the ballpark, a meat analogue burger is a great way to get a vegetarian meal that isn't nachos with cheese sauce."

Beyond the question of nutrition, fake-meat burgers offer a larger benefit: A recent study says beef has an environmental impact 20 to 100 times higher than plant-based foods. "The Impossible Burger has significant public health benefits because it uses only a fraction of the land, water and energy it takes to produce a burger from cows, and it doesn’t contribute to the antibiotics arms race or the well-known risk of antibiotic resistance," says Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer for Impossible Foods.

So, should you eat a faux-meat burger every day? Probably not, just as you probably shouldn't eat a beef burger daily. But if you love the taste of meat and want to eat less of it, they can be a place to start, experts say.

Back in 2013, Whole Foods, whose CEO said these products are "super, highly processed," provided a launching pad for Beyond Meat, one of the leading vegan meat companies. Those stores still sell Beyond Meat's line, as well as a wide array of similar products. In that interview, Mackey told CNBC Make It he still believes in using meat substitutes as a transition food, a first step toward a more plant-based diet.

"It’s providing people with more choice, and that’s a good thing," says Petitpain. "But we still want to include real vegetables in our diet."

Show Sources

Food-Navigator USA: "The Real MEAT Act 2019: Plant-based brands should use term 'imitation' meat."

CNBC: "Whole Foods CEO on plant-based meat boom: Good for the environment but not for your health."

Cell Metabolism: "Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake."

Debbie Petitpain, registered dietitian; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.

Environmental Research Letters: “Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice.”

Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer, Impossible Foods.

News release, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Business Insider: “Plant-based 'meat' is conquering fast food. Here's where you can get meat substitutes like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Taco.”

Business Insider: “KFC rolls out first plant-based fried 'chicken' with Beyond Meat.”

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