Protein is a nutrient the body uses to build and repair cells and tissues. It is made up of organic compounds called essential and nonessential amino acids. Essential amino acids must be consumed in food because they cannot be produced by the body. There are a total of nine essential amino acids, and they are found simultaneously in animal protein, such as meat, dairy and eggs. Some essential amino acids can also be found in nuts, beans, legumes and grains, however, a variety of these foods need to be eaten to obtain all nine essential amino acids within a day.

Meat substitutes are food products made to resemble their meat counterparts but contain no animal protein. They are foods made from tempeh, seitan, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, soy and/ or nuts. These products have been gaining popularity as plant-based diets become more popular and the demand for vegetarian and vegan food increases. When deciding if meat substitutes are worth the hype, three important factors to consider are health benefits, environmental impact and cost.

Health benefits

In the nation’s largest health and nutrition survey (NHANES), made up of 16,810 respondents, 280 people (1.7 percent) reported they did not eat meat, poultry or seafood on the two non-consecutive days they were surveyed. In comparison to the vast majority of meat eaters, the non-meat eaters’ diets were better aligned with key recommendations from the United States Department of Agriculture U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

We know that diets that have more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats are healthier overall. While there are many individual nutrients that make up this type of eating pattern and contribute to better health, antioxidants received special attention in a research study examining non-meat food products and cardiovascular health. Researchers found that consumption of these food products and their extracts led to reduced fat and sodium intake and help prevent heart disease by protecting cardiac cells.

Environmental impact

Some people choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for the environmental implications. Beef has been shown to be the largest cause of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use in the American diet. In comparison, vegetarian and vegan diets reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 and 67 percent respectively, decrease water use by 70-75 percent and decrease land use by 70-79 percent.

Cost per gram of protein

Some have suggested vegetarian and vegan protein sources as a cheaper alternative than their animal protein counterparts. A group of researchers studied this by comparing 25 meats, six fish and 18 non-meat foods by evaluating their nutritional density and calculating the nutrients available per U.S. dollar. The analysis showed that meat and non-meat foods have a similar cost when factoring out price per gram of protein. This is likely because vegetarian and vegan protein sources have about 20-60% as much protein for the volume as meats do. A larger volume of vegetarian protein foods need to be eaten to meet the same protein quantity as a smaller piece of meat. For example, to equal the amount of protein in a 3 ounce (approximately 1/3 cup diced) chicken breast you would need to eat 1 ¼ cup of cooked lentils.

The bottom line

To determine if meat substitutes are worth the hype, you need to evaluate the factors that are important to you. Positive factors to consider when making a diet choice to reduce meat intake include improved heart health as well as the additional impacts of an overall healthier diet and a lesser environmental impact. Neutral factors to consider are cost and a variety of available food products.  A potential negative factor to consider is that sometimes, changing the types of foods you purchase and regularly eat can be challenging, but not impossible.

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About the Author

Andrea Dietz, RD, CD, is a clinical dietitian with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network.

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