Are Meat Alternatives Healthy for Kids?
Plant-based burgers are suddenly hot, even among meat-eaters. But the ones getting the most attention aren't your typical black bean patties. Burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger look, feel, smell, and even taste like actual beef and are sold at mainstream grocery stores and fast food chains like Burger King. They seem like a no-brainer, smarter choice—but are they? The answer isn't as simple as you might think, and as a dietitian, I have mixed feelings. Here's what parents need to know.
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What's in a Plant-Based Burger?
While homemade meatless burgers are usually made with whole foods like rice, beans, and mushrooms, the base of store-bought meat alternatives is usually protein isolate, made by extracting protein from soybeans, peas, or potatoes. Other ingredients typically include oils (for juiciness), thickeners like methylcellulose (a plant compound that holds the products together), and plant juices and extracts for a red, meaty hue. All the ingredients are perfectly safe, but added up, they create a processed product.
Are They Healthier Than Real Meat?
Not as much as we wish. Unlike meat, plant-based proteins don’t contain cholesterol and may pack some fiber. But they can have a comparable amount of calories and saturated fat from the added oils. For instance, The Impossible Whopper, at Burger King, has calories and saturated fat similar to a regular Whopper, and it has more sodium. (The chain is testing a kids’ menu version in some cities.)
There’s also red meat’s cancer risk to consider. Eating red meat regularly may raise the odds of developing some cancers, especially colon cancer. But it’s not yet known whether replacing red meat with these alternatives would lower your risk, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). A strategy that has been proven to work: swapping red meat with beans, vegetables, and whole grains.
For a second opinion, I reached out to Alex Caspero, a registered dietitian, mom, and co-founder of Plant Based Juniors, a community for parents who feed their kids a primarily plant-based diet. "If someone is going to go to a fast-food restaurant to get a burger, I think it's better to get a plant-based burger," she says. "I'm a big fan of these products to reduce red meat consumption for omnivores." She notes that these burgers contain similar levels of iron and protein to ground beef—which is good for growing kids who need those nutrients—without the cholesterol of meat.
Before tossing any package into your cart, try to compare Nutrition Facts labels and ingredients. For burgers and nuggets, stick mainly with brands that have 20 percent or less of the Daily Value of saturated fat and sodium per serving. (Coconut oil can make some higher in fat, and meatless sausage, as with real sausage, can be high in sodium.) And when you go for fast food, don’t have plant-based options any more often than you’d choose a regular burger.
Are They Better for the Planet Compared with Meat?
Yes. Even with transportation and processing factored in, these products require fewer resources and generate lower greenhouse-gas emissions. Look for products with minimal packaging, since plastic wrappers can have a bigger impact on climate change than the fuel used to ship the food to the supermarket.
If you're trying to get your family to eat less meat overall, these products—which have the look and feel of the real deal—can make that a whole lot easier. My kids both love the vegan "chicken" on the market. But they're not huge fans of the from-scratch rice and bean burgers I've made at home. Plus, you can't beat the convenience of a ready-made patty.
The Bottom Line
Fake meat can help your family go meatless more often—and that’s awesome. But until more is known about the health benefits, the AICR suggests limiting it to no more than 12 to 18 ounces per week.
"I look at the plant-based burgers the same way I look at beef burgers—not foods that I'd recommend on a daily basis, but an okay occasional choice," Caspero says. "I'd much rather advocate for a whole-foods, plant-based meal, but also believe that fun foods can be part of a healthy diet. I've given the Beyond Burger products to my toddler, and he loves it!"
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents magazine and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.