Making meat in safer, more efficient ways

Plant-based meat is a market-based solution that can feed a growing global population while building a more stable food system, stemming antibiotic resistance, and meeting climate goals.

Plant-based meat often joins conventional animal meat in consumers’ baskets, and consumers perceive plant-based alternatives to processed meat favorably.1, 2 Therefore, it’s important to ask: How does the nutrition of plant-based meat compare to the meat it replaces?3

Plant-based meat generally has fewer calories and less saturated fat than animal-based meat. It has zero cholesterol and almost always contains fiber. Although different plant-based products have different formulations, comparing some of the most popular products on the market with conventional options gives us a good sense of how the category generally stacks up.

Plant-based nutrition facts

ProductCaloriesTotal fat (percent of calories)Saturated fatFiberProtein 
(percent of calories)
Sodium*Cholesterol 
BEEF: SERVING SIZE 113G (QUARTER POUND) 
Conventional 80/20 ground beef USDA290 23g (70%)9g0g19g (27%)75mg80mg
Beyond Burger Beyond Meat230 14g (55%)5g2g20g (35%)390mg0mg
Impossible Burger 
Impossible Foods
240 14g (53%)8g3g19g (32%)370mg0mg
Vegan Meat Lovers Burger 
MorningStar Farms 
270 16g (53%)2.5g4g27g (40%)330mg0mg
CHICKEN: SERVING SIZE 95G
Conventional Chicken Nuggets
Tyson** 
29018g (57%)4g 0g15g (21%)500 mg40mg 
Beyond Chicken Tenders 
Beyond Meat**
25014g (51%)2.5g2g15g (25%)530mg0mg
Impossible Chicken Nuggets Impossible Foods 24012g (45%)1.5g2g13g (22%)480mg0mg
Veggie Chick’n Nuggets
MorningStar Farms** 
2109g (38%)1g4g14g (27%)330mg0mg
Data collected February 2022
* Plant-based meats are seasoned at point of sale and conventional meat is not. See below for more details. 
**These serving sizes have been standardized to 95 grams for ease of comparison. 

Is plant-based meat ultra-processed?

Food processing is not inherently bad. The golden rule of effectively processing food is “nothing bad added, nothing good taken away.” Processing cacao beans, for example, removes the cocoa butter, which is high in saturated fat, and leaves behind cocoa powder, which contains anti-inflammatory flavanols. In that case, processing the raw food enhances its health.

“Ultra-processed” foods take food processing techniques to the next level to make foods like chips, sodas, and candy bars hyperpalatable. Many nutritionists would recommend choosing fruits, vegetables, or nuts as snacks. Compared with minimally processed foods, ultra-processed foods generally have less (or zero) fiber and a lot more sugar, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and calories.4,5

Plant-based meat is not here to replace apples or kale. Consumers are often choosing plant-based meat to reduce their animal meat consumption. Thus, plant-based meats can be a better choice because they have more fiber, less fat, and fewer calories than what people may otherwise eat.

While data from randomized controlled trials are still limited, initial studies have demonstrated that swapping conventional animal meat for plant-based meat can, in fact, lower cardiovascular disease risk factors, improve gut health, be more conducive to a healthy weight, and support muscle growth.

Let’s get into plant-based nutrition specifics 

Heart disease and saturated fat

Both saturated fat and cholesterol are linked to coronary heart disease, which affects more than 18 million Americans.6,7,8, 9 Stanford medical school researchers publishing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2020 found that consuming Beyond Meat products instead of organic chicken and organic grass-fed red meat led to statistically significant reductions in saturated fat intake as well as improvements in LDL cholesterol and heart disease risk factors. Even though participants ate the same amount of food in both the plant-based and animal-based  conditions, weight was significantly lower in the plant-based condition.10 In other words, plant-based meat led to weight loss and reduced cardiovascular risk factors relative to the consumption of organic animal-based meat.

Fiber and the gut

Gut microbiota metabolize fiber into health-promoting short-chain fatty acids, which may help regulate blood pressure, blood glucose, and lipid metabolism.11 Consuming dietary fiber can help prevent and decrease type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and colon cancer.12, 13 The average American gets less than half their recommended daily value of dietary fiber,14 but subbing plant-based meat for conventional can help close this gap. A 2021 randomized controlled trial found that replacing conventional meat with plant-based meat about five times per week increased participants’ weekly fiber consumption by an average of approximately 19 grams and increased fiber-metabolizing pathways in their gut microbiota.15 Similarly, Stanford scientists found that eating Beyond Meat instead of organic animal-based meat increased fiber intake by 35 grams per week on average — a 22% increase.16

Protein and muscle growth

Alternative proteins contain a comparable amount of protein to conventional meats, and many plant-based products exceed animal-based protein content. In a randomized controlled trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, male athletes who consumed Quorn’s mycoprotein (a fungi-based product) after strenuous exercise more than doubled their muscle growth rates relative to athletes who consumed milk protein afterward. 17

Sodium and seasoning

Alternative proteins often replace processed meats, which are high in sodium — as shown in the nugget nutrition facts above. Commercially available plant-based meats contain more sodium than unprepared meat. For example, a Beyond or Impossible burger provides roughly 16 percent of the recommended daily value of sodium. However, alternative proteins have already been seasoned at the point of sale and conventional unprepared meat has not. The difference shrinks dramatically after meal preparation: For instance, the Impossible Whopper contains only 10 percent more sodium than the traditional Whopper. 18 Simply adding cheese to the Whopper contributes more than 3.5x the sodium that swapping a conventional patty for the Impossible does.19  In the Stanford trial, there was no statistically significant difference in sodium intake or blood pressure across the plant-based and conventional meat conditions.20 

Preservatives

Unlike processed meats (i.e., bacon or hot dogs), alternative proteins do not use nitrite and nitrate preservatives, which produce N-nitroso chemicals that can lead to bowel cancer.21

Product development

Alternative proteins can continue to be enhanced through product reformulation efforts that  improve their nutrition. The ingredients currently used in plant-based meat are not fully optimized for this purpose, so the alternative protein industry is working within the limits of the existing supply chain.22 Ongoing research may enable plant-based meat producers to use even more nutritious crops, ingredients, and processes; further optimize fat content; and more.23 

What isn’t visible on the nutrition facts panel

An estimated 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are sold for use in animal agriculture.24 Overuse of antibiotics fuels antibiotic-resistant disease, which causes more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and 35,000 deaths in the U.S. annually.25 The production of alternative proteins does not require antibiotics. Further, due to the end-to-end process control, alternative proteins have orders of magnitude less bacterial contamination, which reduces the risk of foodborne illness.

Alternative proteins benefit planetary health and public health, and the evidence suggests that eating alternative proteins in lieu of conventional meat can be good for individual health as well.

References

1.  NPD. (2019). The Future of Plant-Based Snapshot. The NPD Group.

2.  Michel, F.; Hartmann, C.; Siegrist, M. Consumers’ associations, perceptions and acceptance of meat and plant-based meat alternatives. Food Qual. Prefer. 2021, 87, 104063.

3.  Cultivated meat, while not yet available outside of Singapore, will match the nutrient composition of conventional meat with precision, though it will have fewer contaminants (e.g., foodborne pathogens and drug residues) than conventional meat. See gfi.org for more information.

4.  Moubarac, J., Martins, A., Claro, R., Levy, R., Cannon, G., & Monteiro, C. (2013). Consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health. Evidence from Canada. Public Health Nutrition, 16(12), 2240-2248. 

5.  Poti, J. M., Mendez, M. A., Ng, S. W., & Popkin, B. M. (2015). Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households?. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 101(6), 1251–1262. 

6.  Clifton, P. M., & Keogh, J. B. (2017). A systematic review of the effect of dietary saturated and polyunsaturated fat on heart disease. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 27(12), 1060-1080.

7.  Kuklina, E. V., Yoon, P. W., & Keenan, N. L. (2010). Prevalence of coronary heart disease risk factors and screening for high cholesterol levels among young adults, United States, 1999–2006. The Annals of Family Medicine, 8(4), 327-333.

8.  Fielding, C. J., Havel, R. J., Todd, K. M., Yeo, K. E., Schloetter, M. C., Weinberg, V., & Frost, P. H. (1995). Effects of dietary cholesterol and fat saturation on plasma lipoproteins in an ethnically diverse population of healthy young men. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 95(2), 611–618. 

9.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, February 7). Heart disease facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 17, 2022.

10.  Crimarco, A., Springfield, S., Petlura, C., Streaty, T., Cunanan, K., Lee, J., … & Gardner, C. D. (2020). A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood-Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112(5), 1188-1199. 

11.  Nogal, A., Valdes, A. M., & Menni, C. (2021). The role of short-chain fatty acids in the interplay between gut microbiota and diet in cardio-metabolic health. Gut Microbes, 13(1), 1–24.

12.  Kaczmarczyk, M. M., Miller, M. J., & Freund, G. G. (2012). The health benefits of dietary fiber: beyond the usual suspects of type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Metabolism, 61(8), 1058-1066. 

13.  Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis, R. H., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., … & Williams, C. L. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), 188-205.

14.  Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis, R. H., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., … & Williams, C. L. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), 188-205.

15.  Toribio-Mateas, M. A., Bester, A., & Klimenko, N. (2021). Impact of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives on the Gut Microbiota of Consumers: A Real-World Study. Foods, 10(9), 2040.

16.  Crimarco, A., Springfield, S., Petlura, C., Streaty, T., Cunanan, K., Lee, J., … & Gardner, C. D. (2020). A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood-Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112(5), 1188-1199. 

17.  Monteyne, A. J., Coelho, M. O. C., Porter, C., Abdelrahman, D. R., Jameson, T. S. O.,  Jackman, S. R., Blackwell, J. R., Finnigan, T. J. A.,  Stephens, F. B., Dirks, M. L., Wall B. T., Mycoprotein ingestion stimulates protein synthesis rates to a greater extent than milk protein in rested and exercised skeletal muscle of healthy young men: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 112, Issue 2, August 2020, Pages 318–333.

18.  Burger King. (2020, April). Nutrition April 2020 – burger king®. Retrieved February 16, 2022.

19.  Burger King. (2020, April). Nutrition April 2020 – burger king®. Retrieved February 16, 2022.

20.  Crimarco, A., Springfield, S., Petlura, C., Streaty, T., Cunanan, K., Lee, J., … & Gardner, C. D. (2020). A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood-Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112(5), 1188-1199. 

21.  Norat, T., Lukanova, A., Ferrari, P. and Riboli, E. (2002), Meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: Dose-response meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Int. J. Cancer, 98: 241-256.

22.  Kyriakopoulou, K., Keppler, J. K., & van der Goot, A. J. (2021). Functionality of Ingredients and Additives in Plant-Based Meat Analogues. Foods, 10, 600. 

23.  Alternative protein research grants (2021). The Good Food Institute. (2022, February 16). Retrieved February 16, 2022.

24.  Antibiotics and animal agriculture: A Primer. The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2016, December 19). Retrieved February 16, 2022.

25.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, December 13). National estimates for antibiotic resistance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 16, 2022.

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