A meat which you don’t have to worry about the method of slaughtering, plant-based meat is a fast-growing alternative to conventional meat. It is made from vegetarian ingredients, but is designed to mimic the flavor, texture, and appearance of regular meat.

Veggie burgers have been around for a long time, but the products on the market today are different. Veggie burgers have a vegetable flavor and are usually marketed for vegetarians. Two of the major entrants in this market are Impossible™ Foods and Beyond Meat. Impossible™ Foods products are halal certified by IFANCA. Both company products are designed to taste like meat and are marketed to both vegetarians and meat consumers. Imitation meat, such as tofu in China (“the meat without bones”), has been around for centuries, but such uncannily realistic plant-based meat products are new. In addition to mimicking the appearance of meat, they contain the same grams of protein and exhibit the same cooking characteristics. The Impossible™ Burger, for example, is even pink in the middle and appears to bleed. This impressive feat was achieved with heme produced sustainably from yeast. This also has the added benefit of being nature’s most readily absorbed form of iron, which is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.

The proteins in the Impossible Foods burger come from soy while those in the Beyond Meat burger come from peas. Soy and peas are some of the best plant sources of protein and are complete proteins. By comparison, the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), the current standard for measuring protein quality, is 0.92 for beef protein, 1.0 for soy protein, and 0.89 for pea protein. The maximum PDCAAS score is 1.0, indicating that it provides 100% or more of the essential amino acids. Plant-based chicken, such as the Beyond Grilled Chicken Strips, are also made from similar ingredients as the beef.

Plant-based seafood is also up-and-coming. They are made from a variety of plant ingredients, such as peas, soy, chickpeas, tomatoes, lentils, algae oil (for omega-3s), rice flakes, konjac powder (a gelatin substitute), seaweed, turmeric, and ginger. Legumes are a powerhouse for nutrition, providing fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Algae oil is high in the omega-3 DHA, which fish absorb when they eat microalgae. This source comes straight from the bottom of the food chain, skipping common fish contaminants like mercury, a major problem with albacore tuna, swordfish, and king mackerel. Algae oil lacks odor as well, so we can safely crack open our faux seafood around co-workers (ahem, this was a major issue of mine years ago). The production of algae is easier, gives higher yields, and is more environmentally friendly than fish oil.

I asked Matt Ball from the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit for meat substitutes, about the goals behind these new plant-based meat movements, and he replied: “I will make the point that The Good Food Institute is not about getting people to reduce their meat consumption. Rather, we are working to change how meat is produced. Given that per capita meat consumption in the United States and globally is as high as it has ever been, we want to have the meat produced in ways that are healthy, humane, and sustainable.” Rather than trying to convince consumers that they should think more about the environmental impact of meat, these pioneers are creating sustainable meat from plants.


Ethics and Environmental Concerns

Ethics and environmental concerns are a big driving factor behind these shifts in consumer behavior. We know that the industrial model of raising livestock contributes to climate change, antibiotic resistance, pollution, uses a lot of land for livestock and feed, and consumes billions of dollars a year in subsidies to grow feed. Pollutants from industrial farms even create algal blooms that kill off or disperse marine life and the crops fed to industrially raised animals worldwide could feed an extra 4 billion people. Plant-based meats are a potential remedy to these issues.

An analysis of the Impossible Burger found it has an 89% reduced carbon footprint than beef, uses 87% less water, 96% less land, and reduces water contamination by 92%. It may seem that greenhouse gases from cattle is insignificant, but livestock account for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Plant-based meats are a potential remedy, but at the moment they’re too small to make a significant impact until they scale up—they hold less than 1% of the market share in competition with the meat industry. But they’re fresh on the market and growing rapidly.

A major factor in meat consumption is price. Between 2005 and 2014, meat consumption in America dropped, due to higher prices attributed to feed costs, draught, and disease. This drove down supply and caused prices to rise. However, by 2015, these issues resolved and prices dropped, causing meat consumption to bounce back.


Role in Different Diets

These plant-based meats can play different roles for different folks. For someone on a standard American diet, simply switching out regular meat for the occasional plant-based option can be an easy step towards sustainability and reducing disease risk factors. If we consider that eating red meat may increase the risk of getting cancer, then eating plant-based meat may be a healthier option. Just replacing one of every three meaty meals with a plant-based alternative can be your contribution to reducing America’s meat consumption and potentially improve your health. Eliminating red meat will also eliminate a risk factor for colon cancer.

A 2016 study involving over 131,000 participants in a three decade cohort reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that replacing just 3% of calories from animal protein (meat and eggs) with plant protein was associated with 12-34% lower mortality from all causes. The highest effect was observed when processed meat was replaced. Small changes can have a profound impact.

What about vegetarians? Vegetarians are typically more health-conscious. Their protein is mostly from whole foods like beans, nuts, lentils, edamame, and quinoa. They have a lower disease risk for many common ailments, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These new plant-based meats can offer extra variety and plant-based heme in the Impossible Burger can serve as an excellent source of iron in a diet where iron requirements can be difficult to meet.

Is it just about health, or convenience and ethics? For one, Americans eat way too much meat, at 270.7 pounds per person a year. Only Luxembourg consumes more meat than the United States. Unsustainable farming practices and animal rights are a rising concern, but why not lentils or ethically raised animal sources? Sure, grass-fed beef from pastured cows cared for with the utmost of diligence is perhaps healthier than what’s commonly consumed, but what to do if you’re of a lower income bracket? And with our fast-paced lifestyles and the appeal of processed convenience foods, the ease of picking up some plant-based burgers instead of stir-frying veggies and tempeh may be appealing.


Similarities and Differences

  Impossible Burger, 4 oz Beyond Meat Burger, 4oz Beef Burger, 4 oz
Calories 240 250 231
Protein 19g 20g 17g
Total Fat 14g 18g 15g
Saturated Fat 8g 6g 7g
Sodium 370mg 390mg 84mg
Potassium 610mg 300mg 305mg
Fiber 3g 3g 0g
Thiamine 28.2mg ? 0mg
Folate 115 mcg DFE (30% DV) ? 7.5mcg
B12 3mcg (130% DV) ? 2.2mcg (92% DV)
Iron 4.2mg (25% DV) 4.2mg (25% DV) 2.2mg (12% DV)

Nutritionally, the macronutrients in plant-based meat are intended to be similar to those in regular beef. The main differences are that the fat in plant-based meat comes from coconut and sunflower oil, the sodium content is higher, they contain some fiber, and the shelf life is longer. The Impossible Burger has higher potassium, vitamin, and mineral content.

Plant-based meats come in many forms, including burgers, ground beef, chicken, and even seafood.


Eating Experience

I perused consumer reviews for the Beyond Burger and found mostly positive experiences, with 87% of reviewers recommending it. Price, however, seems to be a major factor in their potential to further displace meat as they are often more expensive or equally priced.

I visited a restaurant to give the burgers a spin. The waitress said they are very popular. I found the Impossible Burger to be moist (unlike many veggie burgers) and it tasted almost exactly like beef, but it had a slightly different aftertaste and the texture was a tad different. However, as a whole, the burger was excellent. The veggie burger I tried had a great smell, but it was excessively salty (1060 mg of sodium), a bit dry, and didn’t taste as good as the Impossible Burger. I asked a nearby diner who also ordered the Impossible Burger and she said she ordered it because she is vegetarian and tired of the old veggie patties.


Where to Find

You can find Beyond Meat products at popular grocery stores and online, and the Impossible Burger at over 5,000 restaurants. The easiest way to find them locally is to search their websites for a location near you.

Plant-based meat has grown five times faster than the food industry as a whole. Retail sales are growing faster than regular meat. Despite the growth, it is still a tiny dent in the massive meat industry as a whole, though the future may be promising. With Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat raising millions of dollars to scale up their operations and boost output, we may see lower prices, fewer shortages, and wider availability. As competitors arrive on the scene, recipes develop, and prices undercut real meat, we may see truly significant market changes, Insha’Allah. This can result in a more sustainable food supply and a healthier population.

And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily (Quran 25:63). Perhaps reducing our carbon footprint via taming our meat consumption is one way to implement this ayah in our lives, as Shaikh Hamza Yusuf suggests.

Greg Carr is a dietitian and NASM personal trainer in Texas. You can find him at ZaytunNutrition.com.