For most of us, when we think about eating ‘meat,’ we are focused on a juicy steak, hamburger, pork chop, or even fried chicken or fish. The reason for this is that we consider ‘meat’ to be food that comes from the skeletal muscle of animals, birds, or fish. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat and poultry, sees meat a little bit differently than we do. The USDA considers ‘meat’ to be skeletal muscle and edible organs (such as liver, tongue, etc.) from cattle, sheep, swine, and goats. They place poultry and seafood (fish and shellfish) in categories separate from red ‘meat’. The primary reason the USDA excludes poultry (domestic birds), fish, and seafood from the definition of ‘meat’ has to do with how these products are regulated. The USDA regulates meat and poultry as separate categories, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates fish (except catfish, which falls under USDA) and seafood. Regardless, ‘meat’ has traditionally been an essential part of the diet of humans for centuries because it contains a concentrated source of nutrients. On average, each person in the U.S. eats about 225 pounds of red meat and poultry each year and just under 20 pounds of seafood each year (USDA-ERS, 2022). Meat is high in protein (about 16-18% for raw hamburger and 22% for raw beef round) and serves as a great source of B vitamins, iron, and zinc (Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025). Ironically, the animals, such as birds, cows, and fish, that give us meat, primarily get their nutrition from plant material, making plant material an excellent substitute for traditional meat. However, since animal-based meat is derived mainly from muscle, it is not only high in protein but also is considered a “complete protein,” meaning it has the same balance of amino acids humans require. This is not true for all plant proteins, which may be high in protein but don’t necessarily have the balance of essential amino acids needed for optimal health. Manufacturers of meat alternatives compensate for missing amino acids in plant proteins by adding other ingredients to the product formulation.
Meat alternatives have become very popular among consumers, with new products continuously appearing on the market to meet demands for meat-free meals. Sixty-five percent of Americans surveyed by the International Food Information Council reported that they had eaten a meat substitute, and 20% of those surveyed indicated that they consume products that attempt to mimic meat at least weekly (IFIC, 2021). This factsheet aims to provide consumers with more information on meat substitutes and popular plant-based meat alternatives (PBMA). The author of this document does not promote the consumption of one of these items over the other and instead wants to help consumers make informed purchase decisions. Additionally, the terms “meat alternative” and “meat substitute” have the same meaning, and both will be used in this factsheet.
Traditional meat is made of muscle fibers that are grouped in bundles, and these bundles are grouped together in larger structures. The result is a unique texture that is firm, juicy, and hard to mimic. Meat alternatives try to be “something that looks, tastes, and feels like meat” (Zorpette, 2013) and are often called meat analogues, meat substitutes, faux meat, mock meat, or imitation meat (Sadler, 2004). Most meat alternatives fall into one of three different categories:
2) Fermentation-based (mycoprotein); or
3) Cell-based (cultured meat).
By far, the most common meat alternative on the market is plant-based. The most common PBMAs are made from soy protein, pea protein, wheat gluten, or a combination of protein sources, including those listed in Table 1.
Table 1: Common protein sources for Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
|Agriculture Commodity||Percent Protein|
|Wheat||8 to 18|
|Soybeans||35 to 40|
|Pea||23 to 31|
|Fava Beans||27 to 31|
|Chickpea||15 to 30|
|Lentil||26 to 31|
Since wheat and soy are common food allergens, consumers should carefully read the products’ labels before purchasing them, especially if they have food allergies. Also, some people have a condition known as celiac disease, and they cannot eat gluten. A few alternative meat products add egg white (MorningStar and Quorn) as an additional ingredient (Figure 1 and 2). Eggs are another common food allergen. Again, it is important to read the food labels, especially if you or someone you are feeding has a food allergy.
Typically, plant proteins used in meat alternatives are processed into flours, concentrates, or ‘isolates’ before they are used in the product formulations (for example, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, pea protein flour). Flours, concentrates, or isolates have different properties that make them more suited for one type of product over another (think drinks versus patties or nuggets). Therefore, you will sometimes see these items referred to as alternative proteins, or if processed further, they may be listed as Texturized Vegetable Proteins (Table 2). Texturized Vegetable Protein (a registered trademark by the Archer Daniel Midland Company in Decatur, IL) and Texturized Soy Protein (a copyrighted trademark of Legacy Foods in Hutchinson, KS) are terms that were first used in the 1960s to refer to the method of processing soy flour or soy concentrate. These methods remove the fat from soybeans and then mechanically turn them into a meat-like chewy texture. More recently, “Texturized Vegetable Protein” or “Textured Soy Protein” have become widely used terms to refer to the method of processing vegetable proteins using high pressure and high temperature while forcing the proteins through small openings (called extrusion). After the proteins come out of these small openings, they are more like traditional muscle fibers and have a firmer texture.
Another type of meat alternative or meat substitute uses mycoproteins made from mold. The mold Fusarium venenatum is used to convert glucose into protein during a fermentation process. Fermentation is a food processing method that uses the controlled growth of microorganisms to produce enzymes that break down carbohydrates and related chemical compounds. Some common fermented foods include items such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, and wine. For mycoprotein production, manufacturers use corn starch broken down into glucose, fermented by Fusarium venenatum to make the mycoprotein. After fermentation, the suspension is heated to stop the fermentation process, and solids are collected. The solids (product) are referred to as mycoprotein (‘myco’ means mold), and it contains 75% water, 11% protein, 3% carbohydrate, 6% fiber, 3% fat, and 2% minerals. When dried to remove the water, the composition of the mycoprotein increases to 45% protein, 14% fat, and 26% fiber (dry weight). The mycoprotein’s structure is threadlike, making it a good substitute for traditional meat. Products made with mycoprotein are sold under the name Quorn™ and first arrived on the market in 1985 (Figure 2).
Cultured meat is a new technology for producing meat from an animal muscle cell. Cultured meat has also been called “cell-based,” “cultivated,” “slaughter-free,” “in vitro,” “nano-pastured,” or “lab-grown” meat, and it is currently not available commercially because it is expensive to produce. Manufacturers of cultured meat still need animals to get the animal cells that they use to make cultured meat, but they collect these cells without killing the animal. Once collected, the animal cells can be grown in a bioreactor that contains a growth medium. The result is something that looks just like traditional meat.
Table 2: Definition of some common terms related to traditional meat and meat substitutes.
|Meat||“part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats which is skeletal or which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus” (9 CFR 301.2)|
|Alternative Proteins||This is a broad term used to describe a category of non-meat proteins from plant (soy, wheat, pea, etc.) or microbial cells (mycoprotein) or animal cell cultures (cultured meat).|
|Plant-Based Meat Alternative||Main menu items or recipe ingredients made from plant proteins and designed to replace traditional animal meat.|
|Cultured Meat||Lab-grown meat produced from animal cells grown in a growth medium rather than traditional animal growth and processing methods.|
|Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)||Edible dried vegetable protein processed to remove fat and then “texturized” to give it properties similar to traditional meat|
Popular Alternative Meat Products
Meat alternatives currently on the market include but are not limited to nuggets, crumbles, sausage links, breakfast sausage patties, meatballs, cubes, or deli meat (Figure 3). However, the most popular alternative meat product among consumers is the hamburger – sometimes called the “veggie burger.” Table 3 shows a summary of the nutritional composition of veggie hamburgers made from PBMA that are commonly sold in the U.S. The nutritional values listed for fast-food beef hamburger (100 g) without the bun and raw ground beef (100 g) came from the USDA FoodData Central database (Table 4). When looking at these nutrients to compare products, remember that the serving size varies, and a true comparison will take that into account. Some PBMAs add coconut oil to their products to improve the texture, which also increases the saturated fat content. PBMA may also add specific vegetables, such as carrots, beets, and berries, to give the products a red appearance similar to traditional animal meat. The manufacturers of the Impossible Burger (Figure 4) have taken it one step further by adding soy leghemoglobin to their veggie burger to mimic the “bloody” appearance and flavor that we typically get from beef hamburgers. Impossible Foods uses soy leghemoglobin as a mixture of soy leghemoglobin, yeast, salt, and sodium ascorbate. Soy leghemoglobin is a normal part of the soy plant that we typically do not eat – the root nodules. To make enough soy leghemoglobin for their products, Impossible Foods uses genetically modified yeast (Pichia pastoris) that is altered to contain the soy leghemoglobin gene. Leghemoglobin is similar to the two iron-based proteins (hemoglobin and myoglobin) that are found in animal meat (Health Canada, 2021).
Table 3: Summary of the Nutritional Composition of Commercially Available Hamburgers made from Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
|Protein Source||Protein||Fat||Sat Fat||Cholesterol||Carb||Dietary Fiber||Sodium||Iron|
|Beyond Burger||113 grams
|230||Pea||20 grams||14 grams||5 grams||0 mg||7 grams||2 grams||390 mg||4.0 mg|
|Boca Burger||71 grams (2.5 oz.)||110||Soy||14 grams||4.5 grams||1.5 grams||5 mg||7 grams||4 grams||390 mg||2.2 mg|
|Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burger||71 grams (2.5 oz.)||130||Pea||5 grams||6 grams||0.5 grams||0 mg||13 grams||5 grams||250 mg||1.5 mg|
|Great value Meatless Burger||71 grams (2.5 oz.)||120||Soy, Fava Bean and Pea||18 grams||5 grams||0 grams||0 mg||6 grams||0 grams||260 mg||0.9 mg|
|Impossible Burger||113 grams
|240||Soy and Potato||19 grams||14 grams||8 grams||0 mg||9 grams||3 grams||370 mg||4.2 mg|
|Lightlife™ Burger||113 grams
|250||Pea||20 grams||17 grams||5 grams||0 mg||6 grams||1 gram||390 mg||4.2 mg|
|Morning Star Burger Grillers Prime||71 grams (2.5 oz.)||150||Wheat, Soy, Egg White||16 grams||8 grams||1 gram||0 mg||6 grams||3 grams||400 mg||1.2 mg|
|Wholly Veggie Burger (Herb Garlic)||75 grams
|130||Pea||9 grams||4 grams||0 grams||0 mg||15 grams||3 grams||440 mg||2 mg|
|Yves Veggie Bistro Burger||88 grams
|130||Wheat and Soy||15 grams||4.5 grams||0.4 grams||0 mg||8 grams||3 grams||370 mg||5 mg|
Table 4: Nutrition Composition of Fast-Food Hamburger and Raw Ground Beef
|Raw Ground Beef
|Total Fat (grams)||15.6||19.1|
|Total Carbohydrate (grams)||17.1||0|
|Dietary Fiber (grams)||0.6||0|
From an overall nutrition perspective, PBMA and beef hamburgers have similar protein content, but the PBMA veggie burgers have less fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates and are higher in dietary fiber. Some PBMA hamburgers have more sodium than traditional ground beef, and some PBMAs have lower iron, but levels vary with manufacturers and the ingredients.
As food manufacturers have gotten better at mimicking the texture, flavor, and appearance of traditional meat, more consumers have been willing to try PBMA. PBMA seem to appeal to a variety of consumers that range from strict vegetarians to “flexitarians” who follow a semi-vegetarian diet, to omnivores who don’t follow a diet, to people that just want to reduce their red meat consumption. PBMAs still only occupy a small portion of the overall market; however, as food technology advances, that may change.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials.
- Health Canada, Novel Food Section of the Health Products and Food Branch. 2021. Soy leghemoglobin (LegH) preparation as an ingredient in a simulated meat product and other ground beef analogues. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/genetically-modified-foods-other-novel-foods/approved-products/soy-leghemoglobin/document.html Access date 07/05/2022
- International Food Information Council (IFIC). 2021. Consumer perceptions of plant-based meat alternatives. https://foodinsight.org/consumption-trends-plant-based-meat-alts/ Access date 07/05/2022.
- Sadler, M. J. 2004. Meat alternatives — market developments and health benefits. Trends in Food Science & Technology 15(5): 250–260.
- USDA Economics Research Service. Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook: June 2022. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/outlooks/104124/ldp-m-336.pdf?v=3363.9
- USDA FoodData Central https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1099802/nutrients Access date 07/05/2022.
- Zorpette, G. 2013. Muscling Out Meat. IEEE Spectrum 50(6): 64–70.
Originally published 07/22