Is vegan meat healthier than animal protein? Here’s everything you need to know about protein, amino acids, and going plant-based.
Consumer interest in vegan meat has been growing steadily over the past several years leading to increased demand from meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. From Burger King Whoppers made with vegan meat to mushroom jerky, jackfruit tacos, and so much more, the vegan meat trend is here to stay.
But how do these vegan meat options compare to traditional animal meat? Should humans still be eating animal meat at all? Or is vegan meat about to take over? Let’s take a look.
Meat consumption is well documented to populations over thousands of years ago, but today’s meat (and the general population) isn’t what it used to be. Grain-based fed cattle given at times growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics aren’t the same as the free-roaming grass chewing animals of yesteryear.
As consumers dive deeper into the ethical and health-related reasons to go vegan, they are becoming more aware of how to distinguish between different types of meat (processed, conventional, white and grass-fed organic) and their health benefits. Loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, red meat isn’t void of nutrients, but the effects on human health have been well studied as a leading cause of heart disease, diabetes and greater risk of cardiovascular disease. But animal protein is still considered to be complete courses of protein as all meat contains all of the essential amino acids that a body needs to function.
In comparison, some animal proteins are low in certain amino acids and lower in certain nutrients (vitamin B12, vitamin D, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, heme-iron and zinc). But what about plant protein? it has been linked with many health benefits, too — and fewer risks than animal meat. People who don’t eat meat but eat a well-rounded vegan diet are getting these essential amino acids as well.
As documentarians, scientists, and researchers have delved deep into the negative externalities of a meat-based diet (how it impacts the planet, animals, resources, greenhouse gas and the health benefits to the human body) it remains clear that the rise of vegan popularity has led to a change in consumer behavior and in turn a fast-growing vegan food industry.
VEGAN FOOD GOES MAINSTREAM
According to GlobalData, the number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017 — a 600% increase. Added to this eye-catching stat is market research from Coherent Market Insights finding that the global vegan meat market was set to surpass $6.5 billion by 2026 with a compound annual growth rate of 7.6 percent between 2018 and 2025. Allied Market Research predicts that the market will reach $5.2 billion globally by 2020 and grow 8.4 percent from 2015. This has led to 54% of Americans are trying to eat less meat and more beans and grains according to an October 2017 poll.
Plant-based foods are becoming more prevalent in the public domain from notoriety in the press, venture capital firms staking large sums of money into startups, big food players looking for new growth, celebrities and role-models opening up about their lifestyle and documentaries diving into the science in a digestible manner. This is leading to a global shift in the way we are thinking about and in turn consuming foods and the millennials who have added an accelerant to this process have forced the hand of major players in the industry to implement this change.
One sector of the plant-based food movement which has risen exponentially over the past several years due to the factors mentioned above is meat alternatives. From leading companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat growing their availability from distribution in grocery markets and fast food locations across the country, vegan and non-vegan consumers alike are now being able to have alternatives more readily available.
BUT WHAT ABOUT PROTEIN?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that protein account for 10 to 35% of your daily calories, amounting to approximately equivalent to 5.5 ounces of meat on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. In contrast, protein sources can be found in a vegan diet with a combination of options including nuts, legumes, grains and beans. In fact, 1/4 cup of cooked beans, 1/2 ounce of nuts and seeds or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter are all equivalent to 1 ounce of meat.
Along with speaking to the health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, NCBI’s study Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets examined “current data related to key nutrients for vegetarians including protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12.” Their findings proved that a “vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients” showing that yes vegans can get sufficient protein.
The protein myth which reached its peak in the 1960s with a UN report identifying the worldwideprotein deficiency and focus on protein malnutrition was quickly debunked byThe Lancetin 1974 by Donald McLaren. He declared the ‘protein gap’ a fallacy but this sentiment has for some reason be scared into the lexicon of the modern diet.
Protein and animal products are not synonymous and there are downsides to just relying on animal-based proteins. In the book, Clean Protein: The Revolution that Will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy—and Save Our Planet by Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and Executive Director of the Good Food Institute, along with Kathy Freston, put forth that animal meat is entirely without fiber and as Americans we rely so heavily on meat for protein, we are fiber-deficient. Also addressed is the health benefits of a plant-based source of protein as “animal-based meat comes with saturated fat and cholesterol, and it may also be tainted with hormones, pathogens, antibiotics, and other contaminants.”
HEALTH BENEFITS OF VEGAN MEAT
Vegan food, in general, has much lower concentrations of unhealthy saturated and trans fats while offering a good source of fat from items like nuts, vegetable oils, seeds, avocados, and coconuts. For example, the Dietary Guidelines recommends that you obtain 20 to 35% of your daily calories from fat and one whole avocado provides nearly 15%.
Two micronutrients lacking in vegan diets are iron and vitamin B-12, which is why most vegans take vitamin B-12 supplements, there are certain foods that are iron-rich to make up this gap. From lentils, tempeh, chickpeas, soybeans (which are all excellent protein products as well) to raisins peas and more, these items should be paired with vitamin C to counterbalance your non-animal iron intake.
A vegan diet includes fiber-rich items such as broccoli, lentils, almonds, peas, avocados and more while also providing enough omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D and zinc.
All the food items mentioned above, when balanced in a healthy diet, contain a healthy amount of protein, less unhealthy fats, and carbohydrates.
VEGAN PROTEIN OPTIONS
Vegan meat options include: tofu (10g per ½ cup), tempeh (17g protein per 1/2 cup), seitan (20g protein per 3 ounces), quinoa (8g protein per 1 cup), textured vegetable protein, jackfruit (1.8g per 100g), beans and legumes like lentils (18g per 1 cup) and chickpeas (11g per 1 cup) and more.
As one of the more recognizable names in the plant-based industry, Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 and following five years of research and innovation, debuted its first Impossible Burger in 2016, a patty made entirely from plants. Since then the company launched Impossible Burger 2.0 with an aim to improve the nutritional profile swapping wheat protein for soy protein (a higher quality protein) and reduced the amount of coconut oil while adding sunflower oil. This led the Impossible Burger 2.0 to be gluten-free, while still delivering the same meaty taste. Each patty now includes 19g of protein, 9g of total carbohydrates and is becoming a fast-favorite among vegans and non-vegans alike. The burger, which has seen success in chains including Red Robin and most recently Burger King, is planning to launch in retail markets in 2019.
Founded in 2009 to make meat directly from plants and create the “future of protein,” Beyond Meat has inspired its customers with products designed as replacements to chicken meat, beef, and pork sausage. It launched at Whole Foods Markets in 2013; product availability has expanded nationally and internationally to more than 32,000 retail and food service outlets since. Beyond’s mixture of pea protein isolates, coconut oil, and other ingredients has led to the release of The Beyond Burger in 2016 (available in more than 1,000 Carl’s Jr. locations) Beyond Sausage in 2017, and the recent launch of Beyond Beef. With 20 grams of protein sourced from plants, the company is proud to be at the forefront of a sustainable and savory solution to plant-based meat. The brand’s recent IPO — the first vegan meat company to go public — valued the California startup at nearly $4 billion.
Quorn brings a brand of meat-free products bringing over 20 different products available in the US with the Meatless Pieces and Fillets, Fishless Sticks, Meatless Spicy Patties and the Ultimate Burger. The thick cut gourmet ¼ pound burger contains 21g of protein per burger per 100g, made with mycoprotein and pea proteins. Soy-free, low in fat and a great source of fiber, 3.1g per 100g, the use of the juice from beets gives it that great meaty grilling color and texture.
Offering a variety of options using jackfruit, The Jackfruit Company™ celebrates the young jackfruit as the perfect whole-food plant-based meat alternative. Jackfruit contains on average, 7g of fiber per and 2g of protein per 1/2 cup, and is low in calories and sodium and does not contain cholesterol or unhealthy fats. The company offers meal starters, frozen entrees, smoked pulled jackfruit and ripe jackfruit to consumers, perfect for anyone looking for a convenient, healthy way to integrate plant-based foods and jackfruit into their favorite meals to offer meaty flavor and texture.
Based in Los Angeles, Cena Vegan started as a street cart and has quickly grown. Its plant-based meats are no available to consumers in grocery stores in California, online nationally and wholesale to restaurants, including all Veggie Grill locations. Cena’s seitan is crafted using a proprietary process combined with generations-old recipes to create authentic, uncompromising flavors, including Carne Asada, Pollo Asada, Al Pastor and gluten-free Carnitas (made from yuba). Each serving is low calorie (between 60-120 calories), packed with protein (up to 19g) contains zero cholesterol and zero grams of trans fat.