Plant based “meat” has gone mainstream.
You can buy the Impossible and Beyond burgers at Target, you can grab and Impossible Whopper at Burger King, and you can get a Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich at Dunkin. Apparently there are even Impossible Chicken nuggets available now.
I have patients come into my office all the time to tell me (with real pride in their voice) that they’ve given up meat, with the implication being that their diet is really healthy now. Many of these folks are consumers of plant based meat products.
It’s not an accident that people equate animal foods with heart disease, or that many think a plant based (AKA vegan) diet is cardioprotective.
When you read the popular press, you’ll see articles that suggest that “a plant-based diet is the best way to avoid heart disease.”
When you watch Netflix, you’ll see documentaries like “Game Changers” advocating for a plant based approach to diet.
Advocacy groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are publically adamant that a plant based diet is the only way to prevent and reverse heart disease.
And, unsurprisingly, the alternative meat companies are completely invested in the message that plant based = healthy.
When Impossible Foods advertises on their burger package (image above) that they have 0mg cholesterol, the implication is that their product is healthier than a product that has cholesterol in it. When the Beyond Burger advertises how much less saturated fat it has than ground beef, it’s a suggestion that you’ll be better off with their product.
Let’s be clear about what all of this is: marketing, not science.
I have no interest in getting into the diet wars that become religious to many. I’m not here to argue that you should eat plant based, vegan, low carb, low fat, paleo, primal, carnivore, or whatever is the current flavor of the moment.
I’m writing about this because if we’re planning to counsel patients on healthy behaviors - or, even more importantly, advocate to policymakers - physicians owe it to our patients to understand the data about diet and disease the same way that we understand the data on medications that we prescribe.
The idea that a vegan diet is healthier than a diet that includes animal products isn’t science. It’s propaganda.
The data here are pretty lacking. I know because I’ve read the papers.
Ultimately, unless you’re coming at this work with a preconceived notion of what’s right, the research is all totally unpersuasive.
Or the work published in the New England Journal of Medicine on TMAO, a substance in the blood associated with increased heart disease risk that may go up when we eat eggs or fish. Really scary, until you dig into what they actually found.
There are exactly zero high quality studies that demonstrate a plant based diet causes a better outcome than one that includes animal products.
The biggest problem with all the plant based research is simple: none of it proves anything
All of this research looks at a group of people and surveys their dietary habits and then monitors them for bad medical outcomes.
You can summarize the majority of nutritional science very simply: garbage in, garbage out.
I’m sure you’ve heard before that correlation doesn’t equal causation. Studies on our diet aren’t exempt from this rule.
When it comes to nutrition, however, there’s a weird symbiotic between the people who do the crappy studies, the journals who publish them, and the media that reports on it. The result is a public just as confused about what to eat as they are about what time to go to bed.
The cycle is never-ending: researchers overhype the results of their flawed trials to a credulous media who reports on this nonsense as though any of it means anything.
Which brings us back to the Impossible Burger and the rest of the fake meats
Don’t be fooled here. This isn’t health food. These are highly processed food-like-substances masquerading as something simple and healthful.
Have you ever looked at the ingredient list on these products?
I’m pretty sure my great grandmother wouldn’t recognize that as food.
To get the soy protein, they aren’t just taking soybeans and grinding them up. It’s a lengthy extraction process requiring tons of different industrialized steps.
Yeast extract? It’s essentially vegan MSG (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Eating a Beyond Burger isn’t the same as eating a plate of broccoli. Although it may originally comes from plants, in reality it’s about as natural as an Oreo, which is also vegan.
And the quality of your diet still matters if it’s entirely plant based. Even by the “science” rules of the plant based diet advocates, an unhealthy plant based diet is worse for you than a diet that includes animal products.
At the end of the day, remember that this is all marketing
These companies are important to talk about because of the speed that they’re growing and how pervasive their products are becoming - there’s a lot of money to be made in plant based meat.
Since we all have to eat something, we deserve to be informed about this stuff. And we’re clearly interested in it because the news wouldn’t report on these “studies” if they didn’t get eyeballs and clicks.
I’m really struck by how pervasive the health halo around a plant based diet is, and how that halo extends to include these hyper-processed alternative meat products.
It takes a lot of hubris for these companies to suggest that they’re capable of making something in a factory that’s more healthy for people than the things that we evolved to eat.
So just remember - this is big business, and Beyond, Impossible, and Tyson care just as much about your health as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and General Mills.
No one is looking out for you here, so you need to be your own advocate. Maybe it’s even time to do your own research.
Thank you for reading! Please share with your friends and family and encourage them to subscribe!