Plant-based meat is not a recent phenomenon at all.
For centuries, plant-based meat, or mock meat, has been in the diets of Asian vegetarians. It's a tradition that originated in the Chinese sects of Buddhism in the ancient days to help people transit to vegetarianism. Mock fish, chicken, pork, and beef were served at ceremonies as offerings, along with prayers, to pay respect to deities without taking lives.
In those days, mock meat is made of crushed tofu, soy protein isolates and wheat protein such as gluten. Mushrooms, seaweed, and spices can also be added for flavor and texture. The vege-meat is then cooked or smoked like any other meat in dishes.
Today, these meat replacements are commonly found in street stalls and fine-dining vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan and many other Chinese regions. However, seasoning, food coloring, and texturising agents are often added to make them more "meat-like" that health experts commented that some mock meat products may not be healthy.
The New Plant-Based Meat
Health and sustainability trends have helped the new plant-based industry grow tremendously in recent years. The global plant-based meat market size is projected to reach USD 18.52 billion by 2028.
Plants-based meat in the market today comprises a variety of ingredients. Besides soy and wheat proteins, you can find quinoa, pea protein, potato starch, beans, lentil, nuts, and seeds in many plant-based meat products. Oils used can be sunflower, coconut, rice bran, peanut, or cocoa butter. Lastly, binding agents are needed to "combine" the ingredients.
Nutrients, particularly vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, are added to fortify the nutritional value. In some brands, beet juice is used to give it a meaty feel and look. In one leading brand, heme, made via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast, is the key ingredient to its meat flavor.
You can find plant-based meat in the forms of beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimps, burger patties, and sausages.
Is it Really Healthier?
The nutrition value of plant-based meat very much depends on its "recipe." The few recent studies that looked at comparing nutritional compositions of plant-based meat products to animal meat found these meat replacement products may have nutritional strengths and some shortcomings.
Compared to a beef patty made from lean ground beef, the plant-based patty from one leading brand was found to have more sodium, carbohydrate, and saturated fat and less protein.
In general, plant-based meat products are higher in fiber, carbohydrate, and sodium but contain no cholesterol. When fortified, these products can offer comparable vitamins and minerals to their counterparts.
Nutrient values aside, here are a few more things to consider. Firstly, if you are keeping your meals to whole and unprocessed foods, these plant-based foods are processed. While health experts support the health benefits from eating whole plant foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes, we don't yet know enough about whether plant isolates offer the same effect.
Secondly, the total make-up of your meal still matters. A plant-based burger loaded with sauces, served chips, and soda is not going to be a well-balanced nutritious meal.
Choosing Your Plant-Based Meat
You may be avoiding meat for health, ethical, ecological reasons, or all the above. Plant-based meat products may be a way to sustainability, and they can support your healthy diets when chosen wisely.
When shopping for plant-based meat products, avoid those with added sugars, higher calories, and a long list of artificial additives. Look for products made with nutrient-dense natural ingredients such as nuts, seeds, beans, and vegetables. Like how you would choose any other food product, look for those lower in sodium and saturated fat.
Pair your plant-based meat with other healthy ingredients in your meal, and you are good to go.