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Five years ago, if you were a vegetarian, and heading to a barbecue, you probably wouldn’t have been the most popular person when you pulled out your package of veggie burgers to fire up on the grill.

However, in the past year, veggie “meats” have become revamped and trendy to the point where even religious meat eaters are throwing plant based burgers on the grill. The reason? Technology and entrepreneurism have brought food science to get to the point where synthetic meats can taste similar enough to the real thing, and everyone wants a bite.

Plant based meats were born from the knowledge that iron, protein, and other minerals and vitamins which are commonly thought of as meat based, are also present in plants. Through research, development, and processing the building blocks found in plant based foods, companies have been able to create meat-like foods that have convincing flavour and texture profiles.

Meat synthetics now taste more and more like the real deal, and it’s become much easier to host and cook an all vegetarian meal. Yet when it comes to our health, how much should we be relying on these replacements?

They key to determining if these alternatives are right for you is their purpose in your kitchen.

As a replacement for existing veggie options (burgers, veggie dogs, ground tofu), it is questionable as to what offers a better alternative. Traditional veggie options may contain filler (rice, breadcrumbs, etc.), but they also contain a more whole ingredient list such as beans, soy, or vegetables.

Are plant based meats a healthier alternative to meats? Not quite. The products are highly processed, even down to their nutrient components, due to the method they use to create flavour and texture. In comparison, the plant burgers offer a similar calorie, and fat count to a beef burger, and a higher count than turkey and chicken burgers. Across the board they also have a higher sodium content. As well, there is the debate over the highly processed nutrients creating the flavour and meat-like texture.

Where plant based meat options offer an advantage in a healthier diet is menu planning and flavour preference. Traditional vegetarian recipes use protein rich plants such as chickpeas, soy, lentils, and more to give food a hearty texture and flavour. However, there has always been a market for seamlessly recreating meat recipes using soy-based meat alternatives. Now, having the ability to easily re-create a meat recipe with plant based alternatives allows for flavourful lean recipes and avoiding fillers such as added salts, sugars, fillers, and more.

It is important to note that due to the base ingredients in these meat replacements, they come with a caution for both legume and soy allergies.

There are several brands available of engineered meat replacements and they each have their own benefits. The ‘impossible burger’ is based from organic ingredients and uses a manipulated version of plant iron for the burger to “bleed”. ‘Beyond meat’ uses beets to create its meat-like colouring, and pea plants to create its meaty flavour. Maple Leaf, President’s Choice, and others have also released similar options.

With the arrival of these meat substitutes, numerous articles have popped up debating their health profiles, use, benefits, ingredient quality, and taste/texture. While it’s not unheard of in the food and health industry to have a flood of investigations after a new food fad surfaces, the bottom line is that regardless of what’s been reported, the plant based meats have brought a new category of food into stores and it’s up to the consumer and cook to decide how healthy or unhealthy it can be, based on need and use. Scanning the reviews with a watchful eye and reading past the headlines is key.

It all comes down to how you use these products. As a straight replacement, plant based meats are not an improvement on traditional options. However, these items do have a place in the current market as a completely new category, allowing for variety and variability in cooking. The research, when compared to the ease of use, can be confusing, and as with all nutrition, it’s important to do what works for yourself and your family. If you have concerns or need advice, don’t hesitate to turn to your nutrition advisor.

Written by Dr. Deborah Mechanic and published in the Canadian Jewish News

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