Ask the Nutritionist: Are vegan meat products, such as Beyond Meat burgers, healthy?

Q: This is such an important topic. By now, I’m sure you’ve seen them at fast food restaurants and grocery stores, where entire freezers are dedicated to meatless “meat” products.

Veggie Burger, image from Nora Cooks

Now, not all of these products are created equal. Some of them, often veggie burgers, stick to a “homemade” type of recipe, using beans and vegetables to make up their product. They may look like the image to the right, where you can actually see the beans and veggies in the patty.

However, the majority of others, especially the current trend of vegan meat products that look exactly like meat, are filled with heavily processed, unhealthy ingredients. The marketing on these products is tricky, making us think that the real-meat version is what is harmful, but in reality the substitute is much worse.

Let’s look at the ingredients in one of the most popular vegan “beef burger” products that has become widely available at fast food and grocery stores.

“Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).”

Pea protein, while considered a quality source of plant-based protein, causes digestion issues for many individuals. Combining that with rice protein and mung bean protein are sure to cause digestion issues for many others. The third ingredient, which also means it’s the third-highest quantity, is canola oil, a highly processed and inflammatory oil that I recommend people avoid as much as possible.

“Natural flavours” is a sneaky term that often refers to heavily processed flavours that don’t resemble their natural counterparts at all, and could contribute to health issues in those who are sensitive to food additives.

One of the most interesting ingredients is methylcellulose, a thickener used to add bulk and density to the product, but is also used as a laxative in other products.

So with 18 ingredients (many of them unhealthy) being used to replace one ingredient, ground beef, are you sure you want to be consuming these heavily processed burgers? In a fast-food setting, I would rather you just eat the actual burger made from ground beef than the heavily marketed “beyond” vegan burger.

As a nutritionist, I don’t encourage people to become vegetarian or vegan solely for health reasons. Animal products provide an incredible amount of nutrition and can be a part of a very healthy diet. The need for a vegan or vegetarian diet should be assessed on an individual basis with a doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist.

That said, if you choose to follow a plant-based diet for ethical or religious reasons, I support your decision and will help you to be the healthiest you can as a vegan or vegetarian. Just as with eating an omnivorous diet, it’s going to mean avoiding processed food as much as possible, which includes most pre-made meat substitutes. Just be sure to check the ingredient label, and look for actual beans and vegetables to make up the majority of the product, avoiding ones that contain ingredients you don’t recognize.

Ultimately, it’s your choice if you want to give these products a try, but I certainly don’t recommend consuming them on a regular basis. There are far healthier meat-based and plant-based options available!