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Pass the Gravy, Hold the Turkey?

Pass the Gravy, Hold the Turkey?

A look at plant-based meat alternatives and their impact on oral health

Once upon a time, Americans who wanted a meatless plate were relegated to a limited cornucopia of bland blanched veggies or a slice of Tofurkey. But no more — welcome to the brave new world of plant-based meats.

From early advancements in preservatives, pasteurization, and canning to the creation of Jell-O in 1896 and Tang in 1957, we have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to food science innovation. More recently, 2019 was christened the year of the plant-based burger, a trend that has continued strong into the wilds of 2020. A dozen or so high-end meat alternative burgers were launched to market by brands as diverse as Nestle, Don Lee Farms, Lightlife, and more. And it was the year that market-makers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods began to infiltrate fast-food menus — from a faux sausage Beyond Meat sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts to a meat-free Impossible Whopper at Burger King.

We look into what has made these meat alternatives so popular and their potential impact on oral health and overall health.

The rise of conscious consumerism

So, what’s really behind this plant-based meat craze? Some point to the rising trend of conscious consumerism — purchasing, investing, and using products with more awareness of how your consumption impacts society at large. In the case of meat alternatives, some consumers are interested in how their food choices impact their health and the health of our planet. According to the United Nations, the animal agriculture sector is responsible for approximately 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, some estimates show that cattle farming produces more global warming greenhouse gases than planes, trains, and automobiles put together.

According to Impossible Foods, they’ve created a burger that uses 96% less land, 87% less water — producing 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than factory-farmed cattle. The Beyond Meat burger claims to use 99% less water, 93% less land, and 90% less fossil fuel emissions.

Eat all the “meat” you want while saving animals and helping the planet is a message that seems to be resonating powerfully. According to a SPINS study, retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 29% in the past two years to $5 billion.

Addressing plant-based diet challenges, one bite at a time

One of the challenges of a plant-based diet, particularly for vegans, is that teeth can become demineralized due to a diet with higher acidic content and the general absence of remineralizing foods — impacting tooth enamel integrity. Studies suggest that meat, dairy, and seafood help teeth in two ways: counteracting acidity in the mouth and aiding remineralization of demineralized teeth.

These new plant-based meats have tried to address this issue by engineering their burgers to contain as much (or more) protein, essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins as a beef burger. By folding in essential remineralizing minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and zinc, these foods have more than taste and mouth-feel in mind — they are vying to promote dental health as well. For example, the Impossible Burger matches a beef burger on zinc, one of the critical minerals to keep teeth mineralized and healthy, providing half the daily requirement. While the Beyond Burger packs in 30 percent of your daily iron quota and an impressive amount of phosphorus (key for your teeth and bones), 104 mg of calcium, along with some vitamin C.

But are these plant-based meats healthy?

Are these new-fangled foods actually good for us, though? They certainly celebrate the creative powers of science, but do these “meats” fit the criteria of being a healthy food?

The good news

  • These plant-based burgers are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals; designed to compete with beef and other meat sources gram for gram.
  • Some options add vitamins and minerals found in animal protein, like vitamin B12 and zinc, in amounts equal to or greater than is found in beef or other meats — a huge boon for vegetarians and vegans as these nutrients are harder to come by when relying solely on plant-based sources.

The bad news

  • The ambition to replicate the umami of beef led to a comparable amount of saturated fat as part of the formula. And diets that are high in saturated fats are associated with heart health issues.
  • For those on salt-restricted diets, beware: these burgers, delicious as they may be, are a significant source of sodium. And, of course, both are heavily processed, which some find troubling.

The bottom line…

Business Insider interviewed a number of nutritionists and the consensus was that some options utilize healthier protein sources than others. The nutritionists all concurred that while these burgers are processed they don't qualify as “junk food,” pointing out that many foods we consider healthy, like cheese, yogurt, and nut butters are also processed. So, whether you’re stacking your plate with turkey and ham or opting for a plant-based alternative, consider how the nutrients in your food may impact your grin and your overall health — and remember that moderation is the name of the game!

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