Nova Scotia

Q&A: Meatless meat might be trendy, but is it healthier?

Plant-based 'meats' are seemingly taking over our favourite burger joints, supermarkets, and maybe even your kitchen table. Dietitian Jennifer Brady recently discussed the costs and benefits of the fake meat boom.

Plant-based 'meats' are increasingly popular, but do they live up to the hype? A dietitian weighs in

plant-based meats across a wooden platter with more small food cut up in a small cup.
Food columnist Jennifer Brady visited CBC's Information Morning with a charcuterie board of plant-based meat alternatives. (CBC)

Plant-based "meats" are seemingly taking over our favourite burger joints, supermarkets, and maybe even your kitchen table. Before you jump on the meat-alternative bandwagon, it's worth asking whether meatless meat is worth the hype.

Information Morning Nova Scotia food columnist Jennifer Brady recently discussed the costs and benefits of the fake meat boom with host Portia Clark. Brady is a dietitian and assistant professor in applied human nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meatless meat isn't new, is it?

You have been able to find plant-based meats in large retail grocers and health food stores for decades. Tofu is probably one of the meat substitutes that people have been familiar with, and that's been around for centuries, so [it's] definitely not new.

What is new, though, is the various styles of meat. The chefs preparing these types of meat are better able to replicate the look, taste and texture of meat.

The other thing that's new is the idea of being able to go into a butcher and purchase these things. It's also about the experience of how you buy these types of meat substitutes. That is new.

Is this actually healthier? I mean, plant-based foods in general?

Not necessarily, but it really varies. Often times, people assume that because it's vegetarian or vegan, it must be healthier. There's a wide variability in how these things are prepared, so often times plant-based meats can be very highly processed.

Certainly the things that you're finding in the grocery store, because they have to be shelf stable, those can be quite high in sodium and can still have the fat content of a regular meat.

A Beyond Meat burger is seen next to dried peas, which are the primary ingredient in the plant-based product. (Elizabeth Chorney-Booth/CBC, Nancy Russell/CBC)

The butcher-style foods that you're buying fresh, that aren't necessarily packaged in the way that you'd find at a large grocer, tend to be made with more whole, less-processed foods. Like a lentil burger, for example. Those can be healthier, but they're not necessarily healthier.

You have to read your labels, just like purchasing any food.

So what is the appeal of the plant-based foods, but also that butcher experience? It seems trendy, but I would imagine there's a price that goes with that trendiness too.

I think the appeal is still health. I think that has always been a part of the interest in plant-based diets.

Environmental and animal cruelty concerns are a big part of the shift toward eating more of a plant-based diet, certainly for young people who are looking forward to inheriting the future and the fears around climate change.

It's not surprising to me that young people would be interested in eating in a way that is less costly, environmentally.

But what about the cost of eating that way? There's a lot of processing involved, for example, just to make these kinds of things — not that meat isn't labour intensive too.

Meat is expensive to purchase in a family's grocery bill. Lentil-based foods are not really that much more expensive, even with the butcher-style outlets.

Is it a trend that will come and go?

I don't think it will come and go, to be honest. I think maybe we'll see it level out, but I think it's here to stay, because I don't think it's just about the lifestyle aspect of this.

With the vegan butcher, that is the social experience of going in and having a chef, and knowing your producer. I think that's very much also on trend with the field-to-fork relationship with food that's so very popular now. But because of climate change, I think we will see this trend stick.

With files from CBC's Information Morning