Flimsy tofu dogs and dry veggie burgers aren’t the only options for vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians who want satisfying protein options these days. In fact, new-age alternative meat products are tastier than ever — and they even provide a gateway for people to become more plant-friendly in their eating styles, says Sharon Palmer, RD, author of “The Plant-Powered Diet.” Some even promise to save the planet with more environmentally friendly production compared to traditional beef patties.
With more versions hitting grocery store shelves, you might wonder how nutritious they really are. “Overall, I think they are a generally healthy addition to the diet, providing protein and nutrient-dense calories without harming the planet or our own body as much,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, in the process of making juicy, meat-like goodness often comes added salt and sugar, saturated fat and mystery ingredients. And that means you have to be an informed buyer. “As a general rule, I tend to encourage people to look for faux meats that have fewer ingredients (that are recognizable), are lower in sodium and don’t contain preservatives such as nitrates or nitrites,” says Hunnes.
Here, experts weigh in on four popular alternative meat options:
This pea protein-based vegan burger is gluten-, soy- and GMO-free, looks sort of beefy as it cooks and ‘bleeds’ beet juice extract.
Pros: It contains an impressive 20 grams of protein, plus it’s a great source of iron, which non-meat eaters may be lacking. While you’ll find some additives on the label (gum arabic, food starches and maltodextrin), unless you have a food allergy, they’re nothing to worry about, says Hunnes.
Cons: It’s made with an isolated pea protein, meaning you won’t reap the benefits (fiber and vitamins C and K — key for healthy digestion, immunity and blood-clotting, respectively) that you’d get from whole peas, says Palmer. It’s also pretty high in saturated fat and sodium (16g and 25% of your daily value based on a 2,000-calorie diet, respectively.)
The verdict: “This is a good meat substitute,” says Hunnes. “While it is relatively high in saturated fat, it’s from coconut oil, which also contains medium-chain-triglycerides that tend to be more easily absorbed than other types of fats.”
This faux burger is made with wheat and potato protein, coconut oil and a handful of fairly processed ingredients including heme, a red-colored, iron-rich ingredient.
Pros: “Personally, I am a big fan of the flavor and have found many carnivores who love it, too,” says Hunnes. It’s a whopping source of protein with 27 grams per serving. Although people are a bit freaked out by heme (sometimes called ‘plant blood’), there’s nothing inherently dangerous about it, per the FDA.
Cons: It’s high in saturated fat (providing 70% of your daily value based on a 2,000-calorie diet) and contains a large amount of sodium.
The verdict: While many of the ingredients in this burger are fine, “it’s primarily made to taste good, which means it’s not as healthy as some other veggie burgers,” says Palmer.
These vegan sliders are made with soy protein concentrate, canola oil and several types of grains including wheat, millet and quinoa.
Pros: These patties are low in calories and fat. They contain 9 grams of protein and 3 grams of fat each for just 140 calories — far less than the meatier Beyond and Impossible burgers.
Cons: Naturally, this burger’s a no-go if you’re gluten-free. And, because soy protein concentrate is isolated, you don’t gain the many benefits you’d get from whole soy (such as potassium, calcium and iron, which are key for heart, bone and nerve health), says Palmer.
The verdict: “Although it’s less meat-like in texture and flavor compared to other contenders, based on the ingredients label, it would be a good patty to have on hand,” says Hunnes.
This item is made with textured soy protein, wheat gluten, canola oil and a long list of additives.
Pros: This patty has just 110 calories and zero grams of saturated fat, yet it manages to pack in 13 grams of protein.
Cons: There are a lot of unnecessary ingredients in this one, including caramel coloring, added sugar and an excessive amount of sodium, notes Hunnes.
The verdict: “At first glance, it’s a good choice for a low-fat, low-cal burger, but when you factor in all of the add-ins, it’s arguably one of the least healthy picks,” says Hunnes.