Vegan meat may be hot, but it’s not always healthier

While the world suffers through a pandemic and a recession, vegan meat products, of all things, have steadily been on the rise. Since the beginning of the year, shares in Beyond Meat have risen by 82 per cent. Forecasts have predicted worldwide sales of vegan meat products will reach about $120 billion U.S. in just five years. By 2040, this could rise to $450 billion.

With the long weekend upon us, it stands to reason that some Canadians will be substituting their beef patties for plant-based burgers. Whether or not it’s a healthier alternative is a different question, and like anything regarding nutrition, the answer is dependent on several factors.

For starters, the meatless patties are very high in sodium. Their fat content is high as well, with Beyond Meat containing 20 grams of fat, 25 per cent of which is saturated from refined coconut oil. Impossible Burger has 31 per cent fat, of which 99 per cent is saturated. On the other hand, Beyond Meat has 20 grams of protein, and Impossible Burger has 19 grams.

“I would say [the vegan and meat burgers] are basically on par. If someone were to eat a ton of, say, McDonald’s burgers, versus a ton of Beyond Meat burgers, I don’t really see the benefit of choosing Beyond Meat over the regular one,” says Amanda Li, a registered dietitian and founder of Wellness Simplified, a diet counselling service. “But if you were to make an actual vegetarian burger at home using beans, maybe some puréed sweet potato and walnuts, that’s totally different.”

Of course, you can still go vegan and get all the nutrients you need every day. The exceptions to this may be B12 and vitamin D, particularly given that we live in Canada with its 90 days of summer.

“Whether we follow a vegan, vegetarian or meat-based diet, we still want to get the same basis of nutrition,” says Lauren Baker, an in-store dietitian at two Mississauga Loblaws supermarkets. “We’re still aiming for half a plate of vegetables, a quarter plate whole grains and starches and a quarter plate of protein.”

The biggest thing to watch out for on a wholly vegan diet is actually making sure you’re consuming more volume than you would have previously. Because you’re often eating more fibre, the absorption value goes up, although this is different for processed foods. For example, if you eat an Oreo, you’ll get all the calories it says you will, but the nutritional values on a portion of walnuts will overestimate the amount of calories by about 30 per cent.

The reasoning behind the vegan meat spike is unknown, although it may have something to do with the rash of COVID-19 outbreaks at many meat processing plants in North America, one of the most egregious being the Cargill facility in High River, Alberta, with 952 cases to date.

Perhaps vegan meat is seen as a safer alternative not only for one’s long-term health, but also for more immediate wellness. When it comes to other vegan foods, longevity is a selling point.

“Other things like your beans and seeds are very shelf stable, so a lot of those foods might have been more desirable for shoppers in case they need those foods down the road,” says Baker.

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Li seems to agree with the market forecasts when it comes to the increased popularity of vegan diets, particularly when it comes to the supplements some may need to include. She cites the popularity of fish oil supplements, which are now being replaced by more brands offering marine algae oil. Algae oil is more sustainable, has less pollutants, and still gives you a good amount of omega 3 fatty acids while being naturally vegan.

What’s the ideal diet then? Of course, it all depends on the person, but it can’t hurt to eat more plants than most of us do currently.

“I’m a huge advocate for plant forward eating. All it means is we eat more plant based foods,” says Li. “I do believe people are eating way too many animal products than necessary, so plant forward still allows you to incorporate whatever animal product you think is necessary, but it’s a transitional diet so it does include more nuts, seeds, vegetables and things like that.”


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