Meat substitutes offer a plant-based alternative to animal protein, which can make going vegetarian or vegan easier on those who enjoy the texture and flavor of meat. However, are these meat substitutes actually good for you? And aside from their meat-like qualities, is there any reason to bother eating them?
Getting sufficient amounts of complete protein is often a reason why people balk at the idea of going plant-based. Myths abound that without animal protein it is impossible to build and maintain muscle or that you won’t be able to hit your peak athletic performance. While there are excellent vegan sources of protein (such as legumes, nuts and seeds), meat substitutes offer a source of complete protein that contain all nine essential amino acids that we need. This is another reason why many people choose to eat meat substitutes.
LiveScience asked Dr Federica Amati, nutritionist and chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements, if meat substitutes are a viable source of complete proteins.
“Mostly yes, especially those that are designed to be high in protein,” she says. “It’s worth noting that plants offer complete proteins too though, so meat substitutes are not necessary if we are replacing animal protein with a diverse range of plant proteins at every meal.”
If you are looking for a plant-based way to boost your protein intake, have a look at our guide to the best vegan protein powder. Otherwise, read on to find out how meat substitutes stack up.
What is in meat substitutes?
Meat substitutes contain a variety of ingredients to achieve a meat-like texture or flavor. Common ingredients include:
- Textured vegetable protein – often pea protein.
- Legume-based protein – often soy or lentil protein.
- Seitan – a protein made from the wheat protein gluten.
- Fungus-based protein – Fusarium venenatum is a single-celled fungus fermented with glucose.
- Yeast extract – this is used as a flavoring to achieve a meat-like taste and a smokey or charred dimension to some meat substitutes.
- Beet juice – this is often used as a colorant so burgers “bleed” like a beef burger would.
- Nutrient fortification – many meat substitutes contain B12 and iron, which meat-eaters often get from animal sources.
Nutrition: pros and cons of meat substitutes
Reduces your intake of red meat
A study in the Journal of Internal Medicine shows that reducing your consumption of red meat can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and increase longevity.
No animals are slaughtered to make meat substitutes.
More sustainable to produce
Some meat alternatives, such as fungal proteins, generally take little space to produce. When compared with the land used to raise livestock, and the land used to produce feed for them, they are less environmentally impactful to produce.
Meat substitutes generally go through a lot of processing to achieve a meat-like texture and flavor. That being said, some meats, including sausages and bacon, can also be heavily processed so this is not necessarily exclusive to meat substitutes.
If you’re looking for an exact replica of meat fibers you may be disappointed. There is a wider range of meat alternatives available than previously, and while they are getting better at mimicking a meat-like texture, some still miss the mark.
Less friendly for those with food intolerances
If you can’t process soy or wheat you may find it harder to source meat alternatives to suit your needs.
Are meat substitutes good for you?
Meat substitutes can offer a convenient protein source for those who eat plant-based diets. Amati prefers mixing plant sources of protein to ensure you are consuming complete proteins, instead of relying too heavily on meat substitutes.
“There are three main categories of meat substitutes: those made using whole pulses and beans to create a product similar to meat ones (such as bean burgers), those using plant-protein extracts and isolates to create a meat-like food (such as pea protein sausages and fungi-based mince) and finally the most recent innovation of lab-grown and synthetic meats, which are technically not plant-based as they contain animal cells,” she says.
- Related: Eight sources of iron to include in your diet
- Related: Eight magnesium-rich foods
- Related: Do vegans live longer?
She adds: “I consider replacing your meat with pulses and beans to be healthy, but it’s unlikely that replacing meat with highly processed isolates or cultured cells is going to be better than eating meat for our health, though it may be better for the planet.”
Meat substitutes are often fortified with vitamin B12, according to a study in Nutrients journal. This is a nutrient we generally get from animal sources as we can’t make it in our own bodies. If you are relying on plant sources for your protein you may need to supplement B12 into your diet.
How to choose a meat substitute
If you are looking for a meat substitute, what should you consider? Aside from the obvious restriction of food sensitivities, some people may find they prefer one type of meat substitute to another.
Amati says: “As opposed to avoiding individual ingredients themselves, it’s worth checking for the level of processing these products go through before reaching your plate.
“A good indication of processing is whether the product looks anything like the ingredients on the label – can you see red kidney beans? Also, whether you can recognise the ingredients listed on the label as real food. Ultra-processed foods require emulsifiers, additional flavorings and fats which aren’t whole foods to make them palatable. I personally would love to see people inspired to choose mushrooms, lentils, pulses, beans, tofu, nuts and seeds as a good source of protein over pretend sausages.”
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Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives.
She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.