What Exactly Is Meatless Meat?

Plant-based meats are coming soon to a dinner table near you, but what’s actually inside those burgers, meatballs, nuggets, and crumbles, and do they deserve a spot on your plate?

If you tried a veggie burger years ago and dismissed it as a rubbery, flavorless patty, it’s a good time to give meatless meat another chance. You can now find plant-based versions of chicken, pork, sausage, lamb, and even deli meats. Newer varieties mimic the look, flavor, and texture of meat. Some, like Impossible Burger, even “bleed” like real beef and sizzle the same way as they cook.

These days, 71 percent of Americans say they have tried at least one plant-based alternative, and a quarter of adults say they eat plant-based meat or poultry fairly often. That’s caused demand to soar, with retail sales of plant-based meats hitting $7 billion in 2020. Analysts don’t expect the meat-free movement to slow anytime soon; a 2021 Bloomberg Intelligence report predicts the market will skyrocket to a whopping $74 billion by 2030—a 957 percent surge.

Even fast food companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Burger King has the Impossible Whopper, Dunkin’ Donuts sells the Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, and White Castle offers Impossible Sliders. Pizza Hut offers Beyond vegan pepperoni in some locations, and McDonalds is testing a meatless burger called the McPlant created with Beyond Meat. Even KFC is working to perfect faux fried chicken as “finger-lickin’ good” as their original.

Whether you think eating animals is barbaric and inhumane, you want to be healthier, you want to save the environment—or some combination of all three, you might want to fire up your grill for the latest meatless meat offerings.

But what is meatless meat exactly? And is it healthier? Is plant-based meat better for the planet? Here’s what you need to know.

What is plant-based meat made of?

Plant-based meats are made from a variety of non-animal ingredients, depending on the brand. Common base components include soy, peas, beans, mushrooms, mung beans, wheat gluten, coconut oil, and rice. The newer, more meat-like products made by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods tend to be more processed and have more ingredients, including oils to give them a juicy texture and starch or cellulose as thickening and binding agents.

To create the signature “bleed” of meat, Beyond Foods uses beet juice, and Impossible Foods uses a tiny genetically engineered molecule called “heme.” The nonprofit Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit challenging FDA approval of heme, saying more analysis was needed and the FDA should not have relied on testing conducted by Impossible Foods. However, an appeals court upheld the FDA’s decision, saying the FDA had “substantial evidence” to declare heme safe to eat.

What Is Meatless Meat Infographic 2rd.com, Getty Images

Is meatless meat just for vegetarians?

Plant-based meats are no longer just for vegetarians and vegans. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat—the current superstars of the alternative protein sector—actively target meat eaters. By placing their products in the meat case at the grocery store and creating TV spots that show their “meat” sizzling on a griddle, they’re pursuing consumers who enjoy meat but want to reduce their meat consumption for animal rights, health, or environmental reasons. So far, it’s a winning strategy: More than nine out of ten consumers who buy Beyond Burger and Impossible Food products also eat meat, the companies say.

And while only five percent of Americans identify as vegetarians, 71 percent have tried imitation meats, and a quarter of adults say they eat plant-based meat or poultry fairly often.

Many vegetarians don’t actually care for food that resembles meat. When CNET reporter Joan E. Solsman, a longtime vegetarian, tried a dish from the company Impossible Foods, she felt so nauseated that she couldn’t finish it. “Maybe the best sign that Impossible Foods has cracked the code to realistic fake meat is that I couldn’t stand to take another bite,” she wrote. “That’s a compliment, I think.”

Is plant-based meat unhealthy?

Meatless meats are generally a healthier choice than beef because they tend to contain less saturated fat and are cholesterol-free, plus they’re a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber, says Samantha Heller, a registered dietician at NYU Langone Medical Center. Some plant-based meats, such as the Impossible Burger, also add vitamin B12, a nutrient only found in animals and one in which many vegetarians are deficient.

If meatless meat can help you stick to a plant-based diet, that, in itself can lead to better health. Not only has red meat been linked to cancer, but studies show that people who ditch meat have a lower body mass index, lower blood pressure, lower average blood sugar, and lower cholesterol levels, and need less medication to treat chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

However, just because it’s plant-based doesn’t meant it’s health food. Most imitation meats are highly processed and contain high amounts of sodium compared to traditional beef. The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, for example, contain 370 and 390 milligrams of sodium, respectively, or about 16 percent of your daily value.

Those brands also contain saturated fat, notes Lisa Harnack, a dietician at the University of Minnesota who analyzed the nutritional quality of 37 imitation meats, and saturated fat is a risk for those with heart disease or high blood pressure. The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger contain as much saturated fat as 85% lean ground beef.

“Think of a commercial plant-based burger as a once-in-a-while food,” Heller suggests.

What is the healthiest meatless meat?

To evaluate a plant-based alternative, check the ingredient list and nutrition label before buying. While they may not taste as much like beef, the healthiest plant-based meats generally have an ingredient list that includes whole foods such as beans and grains; lower amounts of saturated fat and sodium; and added vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12 or vitamin D.

If you want to avoid veggie burgers with high amounts of saturated fat, try the Gardein Garden Veggie Burger, Amy’s California Veggie Burger, Dr. Praeger’s vegan burgers, or Hillary’s Eat Well burgers, suggests Gena Hamshaw, a registered dietician, vegetarian, and author of the blog fullhelping.com. The latter two are also lower in sodium than other options.

If you need to eat more protein to fuel athletic performance, maintain muscle mass, or support immunity—or if you’re a vegetarian who wants to make sure you get enough protein—it’s also a good idea to check the grams of protein. The amount in plant-based burgers ranges from about 4 grams (Gardein Garden Veggie) to 20 grams (Beyond Burger), which is almost the same number as in four ounces of beef (22 ounces).

What are the best brands of meatless meat?

The best plant-based meat brands for you really depend on your taste preferences and health priorities. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the market leaders among products trying to simulate the taste and texture of ground beef, and Beyond Burger gets an additional nod from some groups because of its commitment to non-GMO ingredients.

Traditional brands MorningStar and Boca offer tried-and-true products that tend to be less expensive and lower in calories. Daring Foods is known for its faux chicken products, while Field Roast is known for producing sausages, roasts, nuggets, and deli slices. Many smaller companies are beginning to offer meat replacements as well.

Even Big Meat is jumping on the alt meat bandwagon. Tyson Foods, the biggest U.S. producer of meat, introduced its first veggie burger in 2019. Its plant-based lineup—sold under the Raised & Rooted brand—now includes a pea-based plant burger, ground “beef,” imitation chicken, meat-free bratwurst, and Italian sausage. JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, also sells plant-based products in the U.S. under the Ozo brand.

Not sure how to incorporate meatless meat into your diet? Check out the plant-based recipes even carnivores will love.

Is meatless meat better for the environment?

Studies show plant-based proteins generate significantly less greenhouse gas compared to their meat equivalents, and many consumers like them because they’re better for the environment. A 2018 analysis conducted by the University of Michigan found that producing the Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, nearly 50 percent less energy and generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than producing a 1/4 lb. U.S. beef burger.

However, critics note that neither Impossible Foods nor Beyond Meat discloses the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions across all of their operations, supply chains, or consumer waste. It’s also unclear what effect their overall production has on forests and how much water they use, according to the New York Times. One investor tracking firm gave Beyond Meat a zero on sustainability measures. Read more about whether plant-based meat is better for the environment.

Impossible Burger vs. Beyond Burger

Which one is better? Hamshaw has tasted both and says each has its merits. The Beyond Burger has more distinctive seasonings, while the Impossible Burger has “a faint but detectible beef-like iron flavor (from the heme).” Here’s what’s inside an Impossible Burger.

On balance, Hamshaw enjoyed both patties and said their flavors reminded her of the meat dishes of her childhood. See the best plant-based burgers according to taste tests at our sister site, Taste of Home.

The future of meatless meat

Coming soon to a store near you: whole “steaks” and “chicken breasts” made from mushroom meat. While current plant-based products mostly mimic ground beef and sausages, the new fungi-based meats have long, branching fibers that mimic the texture of whole cuts, so you can slice and serve them just like a steak. Mushroom meats also have fewer ingredients and require less processing than plant-based products. Although you can buy meatless meat products made from mushrooms (also called mycoprotein)—a company called Quorn makes nuggets, meatballs, grounds, cutlets, and more—several startups working on fungi-based meats hope to bring them to market in 2022.

Israeli startup Redefine Meat is producing the first-ever category of 100 percent plant-based whole cuts—think steak and brisket—using AI technology and 3D printing. Made from proprietary blends of vegetarian ingredients including soy, coconut, barley-gluten, nuts, eggs, and more, the so-called New-Meat is already available in select restaurants in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel, and the company hopes to reach thousands more by year-end.

Another frontier is lab-grown meat, also called “cultured” or “cell-based” meat. Grown from the stem cells of animals, they are animal-based products that start in a test tube, so they don’t require the breeding, raising, and slaughtering of animals. More than 70 companies are working on developing cell-cultured meat. Among them: Upside Foods, which is working on cultured chicken, and Eat Just, which is developing cultured beef using cells from prized wagyu cows.

Pushback from the meat industry

Although plant-based proteins have made only a small dent in the $90 billion meat industry, Big Meat has already launched an advertising campaign against them. The Center for Consumer Freedom, funded by the food industry, produced a Super Bowl commercial in 2020 and took out full-page ads in newspapers with the headline, “What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?”

The healthiest meat alternatives

These new generations of alternate meat and meat substitutes get all the attention, but don’t forget about tofu, tempeh, portabella mushrooms, or just making your own patties out of whole grains and vegetables. Beans and lentils are an especially excellent protein substitute, says Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit environmental organization: “They’re nutritious, inexpensive, and far more sustainable than any of the processed meatless substitutes on the market today.”