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As the number of people in the U.S. and other countries show a growing appetite for plant-based foods, nutritionists are weighing in on whether these products are as healthy for humans as their producers claim they are for the environment. Plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, according to some of these dieticians.

As people jump on the plant-based food trend that includes not only alternatives to meat and bovine milk but also vegan yogurt and seafood, more scrutiny is being focused on these products’ health benefits along with any of their highly touted environmentally friendly claims.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, which are leading the trend (and generating most of the hype), claim nutrition and environmental benefits. On its website, Beyond Meat says animal-based meats lead to a 16 percent increased risk of cancer and 21 percent increased risk of heart disease. And certainly, a great deal of scientific research has linked frequent consumption of red meat to heart disease and cancer.

Concerns over processed meat alternatives vs. conventional foods

So that might lead nutritionists to conclude the meatless burgers are better. But not so fast. The refrain “moderation is key” pops up, as well as the argument that whole foods rather than processed foods present a range of health benefits.

Weighing in on the trendy new “meatless” burgers, registered dietician Alissa Rumsey, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, told CNBC: “They are not necessarily healthier than beef burgers. They’re totally fine to eat, but there’s no need to replace your beef burger if you don’t enjoy these.”

Rumsey warned that a public perception that the Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers are healthier than red meat options can lead to a “health halo” around them. As a result, consumers may over-indulge after eating a plant-based burger.

Registered dietitian Catherine Perez also told CNBC that she considers both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger “indulgences” because they are processed foods.  

If it’s protein you’re concerned about, Impossible Burgers are significantly lower in protein than beef-based burgers, yet contain more fiber, according to an analysis by Healthline. It noted that these burgers are also generally higher in fat, contain carbohydrates and have a high amount of added salt.

Nutrition showdown: science experiment or health value?

According to the nutrition website Fooducate, which did a recent “nutrition showdown on Beyond Meat vs Beef,” the amounts of sodium and saturated fat in plant-based burgers are roughly the same as that in a traditional beef burger. But the vegan burgers are highly processed products. Beef burgers have just one ingredient.

The ingredient list for Beyond Meat? “Water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, contains 2% or less of the following: cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, natural flavor, maltodextrin, yeast extract, salt, sunflower oil, vegetable glycerin, dried yeast, gum arabic, citrus extract (to protect quality), ascorbic acid, succinic acid, modified food starch, annatto (for color).Impossible Burgers’ ingredient list is equally lengthy.

Breaking down the Beyond Meat ingredients list, Fooducate says the third and fourth ingredients “are fats, required to make the product's mouth-feel reminiscent of a sizzling juice burger.” Any ingredients beyond the first four listed are what makes a pea burger taste closer to beef.

But in its analysis, Fooducate raises a worthwhile question: “On one hand, this is an extraordinary scientific and culinary achievement. On the other hand, why must we invest so much effort to make vegan replicates of meat products? How about learning to enjoy vegan dishes that have been nourishing humans for hundreds and thousands of years?”

A debate likely to continue

Beyond Meat stresses its products’ 90 percent lower carbon footprint than conventional beef as a huge consideration along with the health benefits of eating less beef, as 3P has reported. The company also says its plant-based meats address global resource constraints and improve animal welfare.

The nutritional debate will no doubt grow more intense as plant-based foods move from supermarket shelves to fast-food menus. Some fast food restaurants like Del Taco, White Castle and Burger King have gone all-in on meatless beef alternatives, while others, like Arby’s, had its own cheeky response with the prototype “Marrot,” a carrot-shaped snack made of turkey.

The market seems to betting on the success of the new alternative burgers, judging from the record-breaking IPO debut of Beyond Meat. The company has said that its plant-based “meat” could eventually become a $270 billion industry, according to The Motley Fool. Nutritional concerns may slow but not derail that bullet train. Nevertheless, companies and investors that are hot on plant-based products may need to take a step back if this debate gets any louder.

Image credits: Beyond Meat/Facebook

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As consumers in the U.S. and other countries show a growing appetite for meat alternatives, nutritionists say: not so fast. Should investors be concerned?
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