The landscape of plant-based meat alternatives has shifted significantly. Gone are the days of black bean burgers being the only vegetarian or vegan option on the menu — now there’s Beyond Meat or the Impossible Burger.

These alternatives mimic both the look and cooking process of their meat alternatives. CNET said the Impossible Burger even tastes like meat — it might not fool a beef connoisseur, but the average person might only detect a slight difference.

There are other meats that have been made vegan, like Beyond Chicken Tenders. There are also recipes like this one from live eat learn that uses oyster mushrooms to make a fried chicken alternative. Plant-based meats have changed a lot in the last decade, but are they getting better?

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Are plant-based meats getting better?

It depends on what is meant by better. There are different metrics to measure plant-based meats: their impact on the environment, their nutritional content and affordability.

Are plant-based meats better for the environment?

In some ways, plant-based meats are better for the environment, but there’s still a ways to go. According to NBC News, meat alternatives like the Beyond Burger do use less water, land and fossil emissions. By these metrics, plant-based meats are better for the environment.

But that’s not true of all metrics. NBC News reported, “Cellular-based meat alternatives release five times the emissions as chicken, putting their emissions just under beef. Plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as chicken — which are about five times the emissions of legumes and vegetables.”

Whether or not plant-based meats are better for the environment is also further complicated by their use of soy and peas, which is grown via monocultures — monocultures can impact soil erosion. While plant-based meat does come off better than beef when all these factors are taken together, they might not be the best food for the environment.

Beans, eggs and lentils, per BBC, are better proteins to consume if a big factor is impact on the environment. By greenhouse gas emissions, poultry and eggs beat out lab-grown meat, but not “lab-grown meat (sustainable).” Lab-grown meat seems to refer to plant-based meat while lab-grown meat (sustainable) seems to refer to cell-based meat, when looking at the original study.

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Are plant-based meats healthier?

It’s complicated. NBC News reported plant-based meats tend to be lower in calories, which is one metric of whether or not food is healthy.

Another way that plant-based meats are healthier is they tend to have more fiber and micronutrients than regular meat. The fiber has positive impacts on people’s health. The Beet said, “The fiber in plant-based meat alternatives, once digested, causes the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which release butyrate — an important short-chain fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties that improves digestion and promotes gut health.”

But there are some cons to plant-based meats, too. The Beet said plant-based meats aren’t whole foods and can have high levels of sodium, saturated fats, added sugars, hydrogenated oils and additives that may increase inflammation.

It also depends on what your health goals are. Some plant-based meats have less protein than normal meat. A 2020 study from the Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome found a higher protein diet can be beneficial for weight loss. The study said more long-term studies are needed to see its effects on weight management. Another clinical study showed for women with PCOS, a higher protein diet was helpful for symptom management and treatment.

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Even though many people meet their protein quota, older people have been found to not consume enough dietary protein, which can increase frailty and mortality. Furthermore, some dietitians have said diets higher in carbohydrates have led to weight gain and the obesity epidemic. So while eating a standard amount of protein may work for some people, eating a higher amount of protein can be positive for others.

Plant-based meats are also processed foods, which is part of the reason why they might be higher in fats and additives that aren’t necessarily healthy for you. Frank Hu, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in The Harvard Gazette, “Being plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier.”

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Are plant-based meats more affordable?

Typically, they are not.

Surveying prices at a grocery store in Salt Lake City, 8 ounces of Beyond Burger cost $7.49 while 8 ounces of ground beef patties cost around $3.72 (they were only sold in larger quantities than Beyond Burger). At a different grocery store in Salt Lake City, Impossible Chicken Tenders sold at $9.99 for 12 ounces while 25 ounces of chicken strips sold for $9.49, which means the chicken strips are more affordable than the plant-based chicken tenders.

Even though plant-based meats might be less affordable than their meat counterparts, proteins like black beans, lentils and other plants tend to be more affordable than meat.

It’s worth noting the average vegetarian probably isn’t buying Beyond Burger on every shopping trip. Vegetarians save on average $750 a year at the grocery store compared to omnivores, per The Beet. Vegetables, legumes and grains often cost much less than meat, so that’s likely why the bills are lower.

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What plant-based alternatives are better than plant-based meats?

There are plenty of ways to eat a plant-based diet without eating plant-based meats. Here are some foods you can eat instead of plant-based meats.

  • Beans and rice with vegetables.
  • Lentil soup.
  • Buckwheat pancakes.
  • Chia seed pudding.
  • Whole wheat pita and hummus.
  • Hemp seeds on top of acai bowl.
  • Vegetables, rice and a peanut sauce.
  • Pulled jackfruit with barbecue sauce.
  • Vegetarian chili.
  • Hummus and vegetable sandwich.
  • Chana masala.
  • Broth-based potato soup with peas, carrots, celery and onion.