Plant-based diets have grown in popularity over the past few years. As a result, there has been a boom in demand for plant-based alternatives to favorite foods, including meats, such as sausages and burgers. The plant-based meat substitute industry should see massive growth over the next few years. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about these food products, including whether they’re as healthy as some might think.
Although many of these products claim to be made mainly from plants, they are not that different from other ultra-processed food products. They often contain many similar ingredients – including protein isolates, emulsifiers, binders and other additives – and are manufactured using industrial processing methods, therefore can be considered a ultra-processed food product.
Lots of evidence links ultra-processed foods to obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases. This is likely due to a combination of their low nutritional content, synthetic additives, and lack of fiber, which is important for feeling full. These types of foods are also one of the reasons why a poor diet has become the primary cause death from chronic diseases because they are readily available, easy to overeat, lack nutrients and now provide about half or more calories consumed in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
The novelty of plant-based burgers and other meat alternatives means there hasn’t yet been time to see if these new ultra-processed foods also have similar health costs. But there are concerns about the ingredients in some products.
Soy protein concentrate is the main source of protein in many plant-based meat substitutes. But soy protein concentrate contains a level of nitrites declared comparable at levels in high street bacon some products. It is thought that the levels of nitrites in bacon and other processed meats explain why the consumption of these products leads to increased risk colorectal cancer. High dietary nitrites are also associated with an increased risk of other chronic diseases, including kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, and respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Heme, which provides color and flavor to processed meat, is sometimes also a ingredient. In meat products, heme has been shown to react with nitrites, making them even more harmful by forming a highly reactive molecule called nitrosyl-heme. It is uncertain whether there will be a similar effect in herbal products, but the presence of heme and nitrites together is of concern.
Many plant-based burgers also have the stabilizer and emulsifier methylcellulose added to give them a meat-like texture. Methylcellulose has been shown to alter the gut microbiota and increase inflammation in mice, and these changes can increase the risk colon cancer, although human studies are still lacking.
Currently, there is no evidence from human studies of a link between eating plant-based burgers and colorectal cancer or other chronic diseases. But the only safety tests carried out so far concerned the new form of heme. And this heme product was only tested as a pure compound in experimental systems, not in real world conditions where it’s unknown if the cocktail of heme, nitrites and other additives could interact and increase the risk of cancer in humans.
So what about people trying to balance healthy eating with worries about the impact of their eating habits on the environment and animal welfare? Some may consider that any potential risk from plant-based burgers is worth it to address their environmental and animal welfare concerns.
But if you’re worried about eating those ultra-processed, plant-based meat substitutes, there’s plenty more you can do. If you eat meat, but still want to reduce the environmental impact of the food you eat, choose more sustainably produced meat can contribute to this. If you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, cooking meals with lentils, beans, and chickpeas can also ensure you have a protein-rich meal with less environmental impact.
Of course, not all plant-based meat alternatives on the market are necessarily bad for you. The market for plant-based foods is still emerging, which means that many new products are still being developed and research is still ongoing. But if you’re considering buying any of these, it might be worth checking the ingredient list first and knowing the risks of eating too many ultra-processed foods.