The CEO of Whole Foods Thinks Plant-Based Meat Isn't Really That Good for You
"I will not endorse that," he told CNBC.
Beyond Meat, in particular, has quickly become a fan-favorite. The brand's signature plant-based "bleeding" veggie burger is now available at several popular food chains, including TGI Fridays, Carl's Jr., and A&W. Next month, Subway will start selling a Beyond Meat sub, and even KFC is experimenting with plant-based "fried chicken," which apparently sold out just five hours into its first test run. Grocery stores, like Target, Kroger, and Whole Foods, have all started to offer a variety of plant-based meat products to meet the increased demand.
Between the environmental benefits of going plant-based and the straight-up delicious taste of these products, there are plenty of reasons to make the switch. But the biggest question has always been: Are these foods actually good for you? Whole Foods' CEO, John Mackey, would argue that they're not.
In a recent interview with CNBC, Mackey, who is also a vegan, said he refuses to "endorse" products like Beyond Meat because they're not exactly benefiting your health. "If you look at the ingredients, they are super highly processed foods," he said. "I don't think eating highly processed foods is healthy. I think people thrive on eating whole foods. As for health, I will not endorse that, and that is about as big a criticism that I will do in public."
Turns out, Mackey does have a point. "Any type of meat alternative is going to be just that—an alternative," says Gabrielle Mancella, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health. "Although we may assume that the saturated fat, cholesterol, and preservatives sometimes found in real meats are going to cause us harm, there are negatives within the processed alternative meat arena as well."
For instance, many plant-based burger and sausage options contain high amounts of sodium since it helps maintain their texture and flavor, explains Mancella. Too much sodium, however, can increase your risk for certain cardiovascular and kidney diseases, as well as osteoporosis and even some types of cancer. That's why the United States Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 recommends limiting sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams per day. "One Beyond Meat burger may contain a significant portion of [your daily recommended amount of sodium]," says Mancella. "And when complemented with condiments and a bun, you can nearly double the sodium intake, which ends up being more than if you just got the real thing."
It's also important to watch out for artificial coloring in plant-based meat alternatives, adds Mancella. These dyes are usually added in small doses to help replicate the color of meat but have been highly controversial in recent years. It's worth pointing out, though, that some plant-based meats, like Beyond Meat, are colored using natural products. "This burger literally tastes like it just popped off of the grill, and the texture is so similar to real beef, it is astounding that it is mainly colored with beets and is a non-soy-based product," explains Mancella. Still, the methods of processing these plant-based alternatives can be just as harmful as their original counterparts, she says. (Did you know that artificial flavoring is one of 14 banned foods still available in the U.S.?)
So are you actually better off just eating the real thing? Mancella says it depends on how much plant-based meat you're planning to consume.
"It [also] depends on your goals," she adds. "If you're trying to decrease the amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium in your diet, then alternative meat products aren't for you. But if you're just trying to decrease the carbon footprint from animal products, these foods might be exactly what you're looking for." (See: Is Red Meat *Really* Bad for You?)
Bottom line: As with most things, moderation is key when consuming meat-alternative products. "A minimally processed diet is always best, which is why these products should be approached with the same level of caution as one would with other packaged foods such as cereals, crackers, chips, etc.," says Mancella. "I would not recommend becoming dependent on these products."