Are Plant-Based Meat and Fish Healthier Than the Real Thing?
We break down whether you should eat the meat or not.
With the heightened focus on eating more plant-based foods, food manufacturers have been developing plant-based animal foods (hello, Impossible Burger!). Now, you can find foods like beef, tuna, shrimp and eggs in plant-based form on supermarket shelves. But are these foods really a healthier alterative to their animal counterparts? Here’s a comparison between the animal and plant-based alternative of these foods.
The Real Thing: Because of increased trimming practices, there are many more cuts of lean beef available at the market. When a cut is labelled as “lean,” it contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3.5 ounces. You can tell a steak is lean if you see the words “round” or “loin” in the name such as top sirloin steak, top loin steak, and tenderloin steak. Beef also provides a healthy dose of 10 nutrients. It’s an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, niacin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus, and it’s a good source of riboflavin, iron and choline.
Plant-Based Alternative: Two companies, Impossible Foods and Beyond Burgers, sell plant-based beef that has become popular in supermarkets and in restaurants. Impossible Foods created a plant-based beef made from soy protein that has the taste and texture like beef. The scientists at Impossible Foods created a plant-based heme through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast that helps create that feel of traditional beef. Beyond Burgers also looks and tastes like a beef burger and even “bleeds” like one. The protein comes from peas, rice and mung bean, while the fat comes from canola oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter. Both Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have a rather long list of ingredients and vitamins and minerals that were added in order to have a similar nutrient composition of traditional beef.
The Real Thing: Fresh and canned tuna are popular choices in many American households. Fresh tuna steaks are easy to marinate and grill, while canned tuna is one of the most convenient proteins you can find. Three ounces of tuna canned in water has about 100 calories, 1 grams of fat, and 22 grams of protein. Tuna canned in water is an excellent source of protein, niacin, vitamin B12 and selenium, and a good source of vitamin B6 and phosphorus. Tuna also is a good source of omega-3s which have been shown to play a key role in heart, brain and eye health throughout life.
Plant-Based Alternative: Loma Linda has a plant-based seafood alternative called Tuno. Tuna claims a great taste and texture like premium fish, to be a source of omega-3s, and to have 8 to 20 percent less sodium compared to other fish products. The nutrition information per 2 ounces of Tuno packed in water is 40 calories, 2 grams each of carbs and fiber, and 7 grams of protein. It’s free of fat, saturated fat and added sugar. The ingredients list water as the first ingredient followed by non-GMO texturized soy protein, yeast extract, maltodextrin, Arabic gum, sunflower oil, natural flavor, sea salt, seaweed, and potassium chloride. Tuno is available in packages or cans and comes in several flavors such as Tuna Thai Sweet Chili, Tuno Lemon Pepper, Tuno in water, and Tuna with Sriracha
The Real Thing: Shrimp is a very lean protein. Three ounces (85 grams) provides 90 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein. It’s also packed with nutrients like selenium and energy-boosting B-vitamins. Although shrimp has a bad reputation for being high in cholesterol, there’s no need to stress as the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans just took out the cholesterol guidelines as there was a lack of evidence that foods high in cholesterol leads to high blood cholesterol.
Plant-Based Alternative: New Wave foods recently announced the release on New Wave Shrimp. Although it’s still not available in stores just yet, the New Wave website says that it’s a “plant-based shrimp alternative made from seaweed and other natural ingredients.” You would swap regular shrimp 1-for-1 for New Wave Shrimp and it claims to have the same taste, texture and bite as the real deal. The nutrition information for 7 pieces (85 grams) of New Wave Shrimp is 70 calories, 1.5 grams each of fat and saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, 9 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, 3 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein. It’s free of cholesterol.
The Real Thing: One egg provides 72 calories and 14 essential nutrients, many of which many Americans do not get enough of. It also provides 5 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, and 6 grams of protein. Eggs are known to be the “perfect” protein providing all your essential amino acids. They are full of vitamins A and D and provide the antioxidant lutein, which helps promote healthy eyes and skin.
Many folks toss the nutrient-packed yolk, but that’s a big no-no. The yolk contains almost half the protein of the entire egg. It also contains the saturated fat, which has been shown to increase blood cholesterol. But the small amount of saturated fat found in the yolk can certainly fit into a healthy eating plan.
Plant-Based Alternative: JUST Egg is a plant-based egg that comes in a squeeze bottle. It scrambles and tastes like eggs. Three tablespoons of JUST egg contains 70 calories, 5 grams of fat and 5 grams of protein. It’s free of saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar and contains 4% the daily recommended amount of iron (and 0% of vitamins A and C, and calcium). No other vitamins or minerals are listed on the label. The ingredient list includes mung bean protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, dehydrated onion, gellan gum, soy lecithin, sugar, tapioca syrup, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, transglutaminase and nisin.
So Which is Healthier?
It’s nice to have both animal and plant-based options, but just because it is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier. One of the biggest issues with these plant-based alternatives is the massive amount of ingredients listed on the label, including numerous additives. In addition, the plant-based alternatives don’t usually have the same list of nutrients compared to its animal alternative. Yes, you may find they have less sodium, but the other nutrients don’t usually equate. So the next time you’re faced with the choice between plant-based alternatives and the real deal, it's possible having a moderate portion of the real deal in your balanced diet may be a better choice.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.