Are Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Safer Than Regular Meat?
Plant-based alternatives to meat, like Beyond Beef and Impossible Burger, have gained significant popularity over the last several years. McDonald's and other chain restaurants have started to use those brands in their first plant-based burger offerings. Even Chipotle now has a plant-based chorizo protein option. Many people consume plant-based meat substitutes as a way to cut down on meat in their eating routines. But, as with any new product, there are several health and food-safety considerations to take into account.
There is much debate around whether plant-based burgers are healthier than their meat-containing counterparts, and more research is needed to help clarify their impact on a person's long-term health. But one part of safely consuming plant-based meats is commonly overlooked: how to safely store, cook and consume them. Just because they are made from plant-based sources does not guarantee they're safer to consume than meat.
Different foods have different food-safety considerations, so products like plant-based meat alternatives that have numerous ingredients can make safe production and food handling more complicated. Specific formulations can vary from product to product, but most plant-based meat alternatives contain soy protein, pea protein or wheat gluten or some combination of the three. Potato, mung bean and rice proteins may be included as textural additives, as well as oils (like sunflower, canola, sesame and avocado oils) and other fats, to add flavor and improve mouthfeel. Sometimes carbohydrate polymers are also added to bind with water and maintain moisture. More than 20 additives may be listed on a plant-based meat alternative's label.
These products often contain wheat and soy, two of the eight major food allergens identified by the Food and Drug Administration. Products like chickpeas and peas also have a high cross-contamination risk, and factories might have exposure to peanut products (even if they aren't an ingredient in the formulation).
Several of these ingredients can be processed in different ways, usually at high temperatures and high pressures. During processing, time and temperature are critical for inhibiting microbial growth in foods. Researchers have expressed concern that plant-based meat alternatives are susceptible to post-processing contamination as well. As a finished product, plant-based meat alternatives have a near-neutral pH and high protein and moisture content, which makes them more susceptible to bacteria growth. One study articulated that "the storage and handling of these products should mimic that of raw meats."
How to Safely Store Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
Similar to meat products, plant-based meat alternatives should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. If frozen, these products should be thawed safely in the refrigerator. It is not advised to keep any food, including plant-based meat alternatives, at room temperature for more than two hours at a time. Plant-based meats can usually be safely stored in the refrigerator for 15 to 20 days (check the package instructions for specific products).
How to Safely Cook Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
When cooking, there is some confusion around safe temperatures for plant-based meat alternatives. The FDA suggests a minimum internal temperature of 135°F, while the USDA recommends 160°F for plant-based beef products and 165°F for plant-based poultry. That said, research has shown that cooking food to an internal temperature of 145°F to 165°F kills foodborne pathogens at equal rates in beef- and plant-based burgers.
As new products like plant-based meat alternatives grow in popularity, so do concerns about their food safety, considerations that are complicated by these products' diverse formulations and processing methods. More research is needed to help us understand plant-based meat substitutes' effects on human health, as well as their impact on environmental health. Meanwhile, many people are enjoying these products at restaurants and at home. If you do have plant-based meat alternatives in your home, research suggests storing them and cooking them as you would regular meat, like ground beef. This includes safely storing them at refrigeration or freezer temperatures and cooking them to an internal temperature of 145°F to 165°F.