Are fake meat products better for human and planetary health?

Evidence suggests that largely plant-based diets are healthier and more sustainable than diets high in red meat. Recently, plant-based products such as hamburger patties that mimic the taste and texture of meat have gained popularity as an alternative. In a JAMA Viewpoint published August 26, 2019, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition, and co-authors including Gina McCarthy, director of C-CHANGE, looked at whether plant-based meat alternatives can be part of a healthy and sustainable diet.

They conclude that the answer remains far from clear given the lack of rigorously designed, independently funded studies. Among the health-related concerns they raise are the high sodium and caloric content in several popular imitation burger patties, and that these products are highly processed, which can lead to loss of nutrients.

“Enthusiasm around plant-based meats and other alternatives should not distract from the bigger picture that a healthy dietary pattern includes an abundant amount of minimally processed plant foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts; moderate amounts of dairy products, seafood, and poultry; and lower amounts of processed and red meat, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains,” Hu said in a Q&A published on Harvard Chan School’s The Nutrition Source.