Health experts have a beef with fake meat.
Plant-based meats — lab-grown alternatives that look, smell and taste like the real deal — have never been bigger. Grocery stores and upscale restaurants now stock shockingly realistic riffs on beef, sausage and chicken, made by cutting-edge companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Even fast-food restaurants are on board: You can buy a cowless Impossible Whopper at Burger King, a vegetarian Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich at Dunkin’ and chicken-free Beyond Fried Chicken at an Atlanta KFC. The trend, fueled by health and environmental concerns over meat consumption, is only growing: Investment firm UBS estimates that the plant-based-protein industry will be worth $ 85 billion by 2030.
But everyone’s so excited about science and burgers, they’re overlooking one major point: that “plant based” isn’t synonymous with “good for you.”
“Right now, the terms ‘plant based,’ ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ are really enjoying this public reputation of being healthy,” Rachel Lustgarten, a registered dietitian at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells The Post. “But terms like those don’t really speak to what the makeup of that food is.”
Dr. Sean Heffron, a cardiologist at NYU Langone, puts it more bluntly.
“I don’t know that it’s a healthier choice than real meat,” says Heffron. “If I was presented the option [of fake or real fried chicken], I would probably eat the real chicken.”
Initially, the heart doctor was curious, in particular, about the new red-meat substitutes. He hasn’t eaten red meat or pork in 25 years, and spends many of his days advising people to cut back on red meat, which has been linked to heart disease and high levels of low-density lipoprotein, known as LDL or the bad cholesterol.
“I’ll be honest,” he says. “I was tempted. But then I read what’s in them.”
To taste anywhere near as good as real meat, he explains, “plant-based burgers have to replace [ground beef’s natural fats] with something.”
Specifically, Lustgarten says, plant-based patties have to nail “that rich, meaty mouthfeel that people are looking for.” For that, you need “a pretty significant” amount of fat — and “oil is a straight fat source.”
For some brands, that means adding lots and lots of coconut oil — which is heavy in saturated fats, a “major driver of high LDL cholesterol,” says Heffron. “And as a cardiologist, LDL cholesterol is our enemy.”
In fact, saturated fats are the reason he tells patients to avoid red meat to begin with. Eating too much of it, he explains, can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. That can prevent blood from reaching the heart — and, in worst-case scenarios, it can cause a heart attack.
Nutritional numbers suggest that plant-based burgers simply swap one kind of saturated fat for another — and, in some cases, they wind up having even more of that bad fat than animal meat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 80-percent-lean ground beef — the lean-to-fat ratio recommended by chefs for making burgers — contains about 8.6 grams of saturated fat per ¼-pound portion. That’s comparable to the same amount of Impossible Burger, with 8 grams, and Beyond Beef, at 6.
In a statement to The Post, representatives for the Impossible Burger claim it’s “at least as nutritious as the product it seeks to replace (ground beef from cows).” Beyond Burger reps say that their faux meats “not only meet but exceed the nutritional benchmarks of [their] animal protein equivalents,” adding that some of their newer products have lower saturated fat levels than their real-meat counterparts.
That’s not all: Heffron also takes issue with the “high levels of sodium” in some fake patties — which is higher, in at least two cases, than in cow meat.
Whereas 80-percent-lean beef has 75 milligrams of sodium per ¼-pound serving, the Impossible Burger contains 370 milligrams in the same size serving, and Beyond Beef has 390 milligrams.
High sodium, Heffron says, could “impact blood pressure and sugar” in a negative way. Too much sodium can raise your blood pressure, which, in turn, raises your heart-attack risk. It’s why cardiology patients are advised to avoid sodium.
A controversial new study about red meat and health also calls into question the need for all of this burger sorcery. The research, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that limiting beef and pork consumption may not stave off disease as significantly as once thought.
Heffron wouldn’t go that far — but as a general rule, recommending an ultraprocessed product goes against his medical instincts.
“In general, when I counsel my patients, I broadly ask them to try to avoid processed foods,” he says. “They tend to have more components we aren’t sure of.”
Lustgarten is a little less bothered that the plant patties are ultraprocessed. She says she’s concerned about the well-known dietary bad guys (oil, salt) in mock meat, more so than its less-famous ingredients — for example, heme: a type of soy protein that gives Impossible Burgers their signature bloody look and taste.
“It has been extensively studied to be safe,” she says.
She also points out an underappreciated pro for plant-based patties: They’re less likely to harbor and spread foodborne illness than real, raw meat, as pathogens such as E. coli come from animal sources. For that, and for environmental reasons, Lustgarten appreciates plant-based fake meat as an alternative.
Still, she says it should be enjoyed the same way as real meat: “mindfully” and sparingly.
“It’s an indulgence,” she says.
As far as Heffron’s concerned, you may as well just eat a burger.
“It’s all the same,” he says. “A lot of simple carbs and high-saturated-fat foods.”