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As more manufactured plant-based meat products have become available, some consumers have turned to them as an alternative to meat. But can these faux meat products really act as a substitute for real meat?

A recent class action lawsuit against Beyond Meat questions the nutritional claims of many of the company’s imitation meat products, saying the company overstated the products’ protein content. This, coupled with scientific studies investigating the nutritional value of plant-based proteins, questions whether or not consumers should attempt to replace meat with synthetic plant-based alternatives.

What Are the Nutritional Differences Between Plant-Based “Meat” and Real Meat?

Despite apparent similarities on nutrition labels, at the metabolic level, the nutrition that comes from manufactured plant-based meats differs by 90% from natural animal meats, according to research published on Nature.com.1

“Examples of nutrients only found in beef…have potentially important physiological, anti-inflammatory, and/or immunomodulatory roles. For example, creatine and anserine [only available in meats] were found to provide neurocognitive protection in randomized controlled trials in older adults.”

The same research noted that plant products also have nutrients that aren’t found in animal products, such as phenols, tocopherols, and phytosterols. But you can also get those nutrients by eating whole foods such as leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits.

Bottom line: don’t get tricked into thinking that manufactured plant-based “meats” and real meat are nutritionally interchangeable! Your best bet might be a well-balanced, whole foods diet that includes both plant and animal products.

The Lawsuit: Don Lee Farms Vs. Beyond Meat

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Don Lee Farms, a food manufacturer that produces meat products such as chicken patties, as well as plant-based products that include black bean burgers and Better Than Beef™ Crumbles. The lawsuit makes two main claims:

Claim One: Beyond Meat Inflated Protein Content in Their Products

First, Beyond Meat has overstated the protein content of its products by up to 30%, as supported by third-party protein testing. The weight of this accusation only increases when you look at how Beyond Meat has branded its company. They label their products as “plant-based proteins,” and in 2021 Founder and CEO Ethan Brown stated that Beyond Meat had a “vision of being the global protein company of the future.”

However, to understand the true protein content of Beyond Burgers and how it compares to meat, you must first learn about protein quality, testing, and reporting.

The protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) reports the profile of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—in a product, as well as the digestibility of these proteins. In short, it shows how much of a protein can be used by humans. That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires products to be tested using PDCAAS methods if nutritional labels report perfect daily value protein.

The lawsuit claims that Beyond Meat did not test its products using approved PDCAAS methods. Beyond Meat states that their Beyond Burger provides 40% daily value protein, but testing showed that the product only contained 35.49% daily value. Similarly, the company states their Beefy Crumbles provide 26% daily value protein, while testing showed they only provide 20%.

Glass beakers and test tubes with blue and green liquids in a lab

Claim Two: Beyond Meat Made False Claims About Use of Synthetic Ingredients

Second, the lawsuit argues that the company has falsely claimed that its products are free from synthetic ingredients.

The plaintiff claims that Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burgers contain the synthetic ingredient methylcellulose, which is also used as a laxative and to thicken products such as shampoos and gels.

Comparing Plant-Based Proteins and Animal Proteins

This lawsuit begs the question, how do plant and animal proteins compare? And can faux meat products located in the meat section of the grocery store serve as a nutritional replacement for meat?

To compare the makeup of plant and animal proteins, it’s helpful to look at the building blocks of proteins known as amino acids. Humans need 20 different amino acids to function, but since a healthy human body naturally produces 11 of these amino acids, you only need to get the remaining nine from food.

Animal proteins such as meat and dairy contain all nine essential amino acids, making them complete proteins. Most plant proteins only contain some of the essential amino acids, so they are incomplete.

Furthermore, although plant proteins can theoretically be combined to provide all essential amino acids, the ratios may not be in line with what humans require for optimal health. For example, plant proteins contain far less leucine, lysine, and methionine, which limits protein synthesis in exclusively plant-based diets.2 Moreover, the digestibility and bioavailability of plant proteins are also reduced by certain chemical compounds in the plants.3

Plant based burgers, hot dogs, and other meats on wooden paddles

And remember: it’s not just protein that matters! The previously cited Nature study found that 22 metabolites were found in beef, but not in the plant-based alternative. These include antioxidants such as anserine and cysteamine, as well as the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, vitamin B3, and B12.4 Another 51 metabolites were found in greater quantities in beef than in plant-based products.

Plant or Animal Protein: Which Should You Choose?

When evaluated using the most-accurate protein quality model available—known as the DIAAS method—animal proteins consistently score as “excellent” quality proteins, whereas plant proteins score mediocre at best. The data consistently show that even diligent combinations of plant proteins are unable to match what animal proteins deliver.5

Protein quality aside, meat contains more protein per calorie than plant foods, including faux meats. This means that obtaining enough protein from plant-based meats can be a challenge, especially for older adults.6 Worse, the need to get enough protein from only plants could lead people to consume more calories than they need.

For example, to get 25 grams of protein, you only need to eat 4.35 ounces of boneless pork chops, which totals just 207 calories. Compare that to how much of the following plant foods you need to eat for the same 25 grams of protein:

  • 3 cups of quinoa: 666 calories
  • 6.5 tablespoons of peanut butter: 613 calories
  • 1 ⅔ cups of black beans: 379 calories
  • 1 ⅔ cups of edamame: 249 calories

When you do the math, to get enough protein from plant foods like these, you would need to consume far more calories than your body requires, potentially leading to weight gain.7 And as we pointed out previously, the quality of those plant proteins is inferior to what real meat provides.

Even if you aim to consume enough protein by eating plant-based products, this can be a challenge given questionable protein recommendations. Research suggests that consuming more than the standard recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein can help the elderly maintain muscle mass, and help people of all ages maintain and grow lean muscle mass.8 9 Consuming more than the RDA of protein every day may also improve bone health.10

A variety of beans in rows sorted by color

If companies like Beyond Meat are inaccurately labeling the protein content of their products, meeting protein requirements from plants alone becomes even more challenging.

Furthermore, these synthetic plant-based meat products are often made up of a long list of ingredients, some of which deserve closer inspection. For example, the Impossible Burger contains an ingredient called soy leghemoglobin (SLH) derived from a genetically modified yeast. Although it is currently approved for human consumption, results from at least one study bring into question whether it’s safe for humans, or whether SLH may cause anemia, weight gain, or inflammation of the kidney.

Choose All-Natural Foods You Can Trust

So what does it all mean? There’s no “one” healthy diet, but eating a balance of plant and animal foods could be your best bet for optimal health. After all, plants and animals have been an important part of the ancestral health approach to well-being for tens of thousands of years.

In other words: eat plants and eat meat. Just choose the real foods themselves—not fake, manufactured products with questionable ingredients.

After all, ”natural” should be more than a label: it should be a way of life, for all of us.

To learn more about Coleman Natural meats, read these next:

1“A metabolomics comparison of plant-based meat and grass-fed meat indicates large nutritional differences despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels,” Nature.com.
2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723444/?report=classic
3Phytic acid and protease inhibitors are two such compounds. See: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23107545/
4A review of the literature suggests that vegetarians and vegans are at chronic risk of B12 depletion. See: https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/71/2/110/1940320 and https://www.nature.com/articles/ejcn201446
5https://academic.oup.com/af/article/9/4/18/5575466
6https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/13/3/712/6520429
7https://link4nutrition.com/blog/to-meat-or-not-to-meatnbsp-beef-in-a-plant-based-meal-plan
8https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0261561408001179
9https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/11/3/548/5636798?login=true
10https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00198-018-4534-5