Plant-Based Meat: What Athletes Need to Know


Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

People don’t make food choices based on nutrition. The nutrient-density and composition of a food plays a role, but people also choose foods based on cost, ethics, politics, purity, allergies and intolerances (real or perceived), and environmental concerns. Plant-based meat is one of the newest foods to throw into the mix. So, should you eat it?

What it is

Plant-based meat is protein constructed from ingredients derived from plants, and designed specifically to have the taste, texture, color, mouth feel, and aroma we recognize from meat cut from an animal. Available products from two of the leaders in this emerging industry, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are slightly different but truly remarkable.

Impossible Foods constructs their product from textured wheat protein and potato protein. The wheat protein provides chewiness, and the potato protein holds moisture and helps the product firm up as it cooks, like beef does. To give the product the fattiness we associate with beef (similar to 85/15% beef, in this case), they use distinct flecks of solid coconut oil, which liquefies as you cook it. The revolutionary ingredient, according to Impossible Foods, is heme.

If heme sounds familiar, that’s because it’s found in hemoglobin, a key oxygen-binding component of blood and muscle. It turns out, heme also contributes significantly to the tastes and smells we associate with meat. Heme exists in some plant proteins, including leghemoglobin found in the roots of soybean plants. The trick was figuring out how to produce a lot of it, because the roots of soybean plants produce a fraction of the heme found in animals. Impossible Food’s solution was to genetically modify yeast by inserting the DNA responsible for producing leghemoglobin in soybean plants. The yeast then grow and replicate quickly, using far fewer resources, and taking up far less space than fields of soybeans.

Beyond Meat took a different approach to constructing meat. They started with isolated pea protein, canola oil, and coconut oil. By figuring out the right combination of temperature, time, and pressure, Beyond Meat scientists figured out how to turn powdery pea protein into the protein fibers that give meat its texture, firmness, and ability to hold together as a burger.

Make no mistake; both companies are using a ton of chemistry, technology, and processing to construct meat. Leaving aside how successfully the products look, taste, feel, and cook like meat (more on that later from Chef Jeff Mahin), the process of creating these products raises its own questions.

Why bother with Plant-Based Meat?

Is plant-based meat worth the trouble? In many ways, yes. According to Rowan Jacobson, author of American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, it takes 36,000 calories of energy to produce 1000 calories of beef. Producing those 36,000 calories requires a lot of acreage and water, plus all the energy, chemicals, and vehicles necessary for farming the plants cattle consume. All of this makes raising cattle a tremendously inefficient way to obtain protein for human consumption. To make matters worse, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects demand for meat will rise dramatically in the next 30 years, and ranchers in many countries are clear-cutting huge swaths of forest to make land suitable for farming and/or grazing. This leads to loss of habitat for wildlife, putting already threatened animals at greater risk of extinction. Oh, and don’t forget, those trees consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen; deforestation is cited as a contributing factor in man-made climate change.

Even if you could solve the environmental problems associated with raising animals for food, a growing number of people have ethical problems with the treatment of animals as they are being raised and slaughtered to put meat on your table. Many people turn to vegetarianism or veganism for ethical reasons. Others reduce or eliminate meat from their lifestyles to reduce intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, although the scientific and medical communities now believe red meat is less of a contributing factor to heart disease than they used to.

Regardless of your individual feelings on the issues above, the undeniable fact is changes in attitudes have created a viable market opportunity for plant-based proteins, including plant-based meat. According to FoodNavigator, sales of meat alternatives increased 6% in 2017 to $554M, whereas sales of tofu and tempeh only increased 2.6% to $98M.

But, Why Meat At All?

One of the persistent problems I’ve had with making plants look, smell, feel, and taste like animals is that I like the taste of vegetables. Some of the best veggie burgers I’ve eaten were incredible because of the ingredients and flavors combined to make them, not because they most-effectively replicated the taste of a beef hamburger. Anecdotally, most of the vegetarians and vegans I know and work with – no matter their rationale for being vegetarian or vegan – don’t crave meat or feel they are missing out on anything by not eating it. So again, why meat?

Meat tastes really good. Humans have been eating and creating recipes with meat for millennia. If we want to reduce meat consumption, for whatever combination of ecological, ethical, and health reasons, it won’t happen by convincing humanity to love and crave vegetables. Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, told PBS in December 2017, “The realistic goal is not to destroy the meat industry. People are going to continue to eat meat. It’s to shrink it. It’s to bring it back to a scale where we can raise cattle without destroying the environment.” People love meat, but scientists and marketers are hoping they don’t care as much about whether their meat started out as an animal.

Nutrition Profile

Looking at the nutritional labels for Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products it’s impossible to ignore the irony of seeking to replace a whole food (beef) with a food so highly processed you would never guess the ingredients on the label add up to meat. Similarly, if you have a problem with genetically modified food, you probably won’t be too excited to consume heme produced by injecting soybean DNA into yeast.

But I digress. From the standpoint of nutrient density and composition, current products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods do a pretty good job of reproducing the nutrient profile of beef. The table below compares 3-ounce servings.

Calories Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Cholesterol (mg) Carbohydrate (g) Protein (g) Iron %
Ground beef 85/15 180 13 5 56 0 16 11
Beyond Meat Burger 220 13 11 0 6 19 10
Impossible Foods Burger 220 13 10 0 5 20 15


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A few things stand out. The plant-based meat products have twice the amount of saturated fat, stemming from the use of coconut oil, but no cholesterol because cholesterol is found primarily in animal products. The plant-based burgers have about 20% more protein per serving. From a micronutrient standpoint, they are all similar, but that would be expected because – as with fortified cereals – you can customize the micronutrient content of processed foods.

Cooking Plant-Based Meat

There are several in-depth reviews and comparisons of the tastes, textures, smells, and response to cooking. That’s not really my forte, so I asked Chef Jeff Mahin to provide his input. Jeff is a CTS Athlete and the creative force behind Stella Barra Pizzeria (Santa Monica, Hollywood, Chicago, Bethesda), Summer House Santa Monica (Chicago, Bethesda), Do-Rite Donuts (Chicago), and M Street Kitchen (Santa Monica).

From Chef Mahin:

I’d like to focus specifically in the Impossible Burger plant-based meat, as I feel that it is far beyond any others with regards to taste, texture and cook-ability.

The Impossible burger company has created a plant-based burger patty – that can also be used as steak tartar and or ground taco meat – that cooks, acts, tastes and resemble ground beef. You are able to cook the raw mix to a medium rare – the outside turns brown like meat, while the inside stays red and pink like a medium rare burger. This opens up so many doors for me as a chef, from simply making a burger to Bolognese, taco meat, steak tartar and so on. I would argue that because the plant-based protein mimics to red meat so closely, it may actually appeal to some meat free eaters. It’s that close.

Before I go further I’d like to say I love red meat. I am, and most likely will always be, a meat eater. I believe there are a lot of health benefits with both fatty fish and grass-fed red meat. In my eyes, the Impossible Burger and similar products are not exactly there to satisfy vegans and vegetarians. While they do allow both vegans and vegetarians a new and nutrient-dense meal, the bigger picture is the broader appeal. This plant-based option does not leave me dissatisfied or craving red meat; it’s a new and great product that can be enjoyed equally by vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters.

Speaking again to the Impossible Burger, you can handle it 90% the same way you would a ground beef patty. I have found the best application for a burger is a cast iron pan of griddle top – I would not recommend grilling. Just like meat, you have to be careful of not over cooking the patty. If you cook it too much it does get a bit crispy on the outsides. As for taco meat – instead of browning the meat ahead of time, I have found it best to make the mix and then add the Impossible Burger at the end – to not over cook it. Another great application is using the product raw – think steak tartar. I love mixing some capers, Dijon mustard, aioli and salt and pepper into the mix and mash it around with a fork. Season with sea salt and black pepper and it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference.

Jeff Mahin’s Plant-Based Chili Con Carne Molida

A burger is the typical application for Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods’ patties, but you can also break them up and use them as a ground beef substitute in other dishes, including this great Chili Con Carne Molida recipe.


4 Tbls oil
100 g diced yellow onion
10 g minced garlic
1 lbs Impossible burger
20 g taco seasoning
100 g charred tomato salsa
10 g chipotle pepper puree
8 g salt


  1. Heat the oil in a large rondeau (shallow pan)
  2. Add the onion and garlic and saute till soft
  3. Add taco spice and stir 3 minutes
  4. Add charred tomato salsa and chipotle puree, bring to a simmer and cook 10 minutes
  5. Add Impossible burger and break up. Saute till browning
  6. Add salt and taste
  7. Serve

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Comments 18

  1. Pingback: アスリートがわざわざプラントベース代替肉を選択する理由について | Yuya Taguchi Blog

  2. Good subject matter, these products are great for people who are transitioning, but agree as a long-time vegan they’re rather unappetizing. I cooked up a couple of the Beyond Meat burgers and honestly the smell was sickening to me…because it smelled so much like cooking animal flesh. Personally much happier with the tasty variety of ‘veggie’ burgers. 😉

    Just one point of clarification, the article states: “but no cholesterol because cholesterol is found primarily in animal products.”

    I believe it should be “exclusively found in animal products”. I’m not aware of any other food sources besides animal products that contains cholesterol. Thanks!!

  3. The biggest issue is the use of Coconut oil. There are folks clear cutting to grow plants. Let’s do an impact study of non-native species and see if beef on the hoof has less or more than a non-native or concentrated species. Of course, I’m with Chris. The best non-meat “burgers” I’ve had didn’t look like meat at all. And they were quite tasty.

  4. Hey what about how much carbon is burnt and released into our atmosphere to make this plant based meat substitute ready for market. There isn’t really an ‘argument’ against animals growing meat for us to eat as being more costly to the planet until we look at the net carbon burnt/lost in making meat versus making the plant based meat substitute. Chris the article, which is a good one on the topic, could be more complete by factoring in all the processing costs/carbon burnt for plant based meat substitute…. I acknowledge this is not an easy task but it’d be great for completing the loop. PS. I am a red meat lover, willing to try the substitute and will look for it here in Australia.

  5. Recently watched “Forks over knives” and have gone vegan. I heard insect protein will be the wave of the future.

  6. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I eat a little animal protein each week, but mostly vegan. When I do eat animal protein it’s usually fish and occasionally chicken. I eat nut butters and nuts daily, lots of beans and home-made protein bars (with vegan pea protein powder). Occasionally I also drink plant-based protein powder shakes.

    In his book “the Time-Crunched Cyclist”, Chris suggests that even vegetarians don’t need to supplement with protein powder as they will get enough from real foods already in their diet. However, after a hard several-week training block, I wasn’t recovering properly so I added up my protein intake over a few days using a macronutrient counter. I found I wasn’t getting the minimum 1.2 grams/kg of protein with my mostly-vegan diet. That’s when I added in the plant-based protein shakes and home-made protein bars as mentioned above. I feel better now but it took a couple week of easy rides or no rides, so I can’t say if the recovery is due to the protein or to resting.

  7. I’m new to plant as meat. I did have a impossible burger. Worst thing I ever tasted. I got horrible heart burn.
    I think the critical issue will be flavor. I’m still open after a bad experience.
    I appreciate this article. One of the best I have read on the topic.

  8. The solution is not plant-based meat. The solution is cloned meat. Why not take the best possible beef out there and clone it in vast quantities in a factory and then sell it?
    I understand there may be logistical and technological barriers at this point, but this would make both meat eaters and vegetarians happy, right? And do away with cows…

  9. I had same hip replacement years ago because of necrosis. Went 99% vegan in the 70’s and never looked back. no meds. Teach spinning and water aerobics and feel fantastic at 75! I too take B-12 and Vit D-3.
    Best of everything to you and your loved ones.

  10. I went vegetarian three years ago after hip replacement. I’d read meat has a tendency to cause joint inflammation. My hip went south from AVN, a circulation disease. But I was also on arthritis meds, so I figured what the heck. As I’ve gotten older, I also had a desire to live more “green,” and vegetable-based diets require far fewer resources to produce than meat. I also want to do less harm to other living things. The result has been fantastic. I’ve done two half IMs and plan on a third. I may convince my ortho to sign off on another full IM before I’m done. I am off all meds. Arthritis pain is zero. My blood tests are right on. I have all the energy I need to accomplish my goals at age 66. The meat substitute products are great. I have better tasting burgers without al the fat. Better chicken replacement than chicken, better fish replacement than fish. I take a B complex to get B12 that plants can’t give. It was a great choice. Scott Richardson, USAT L1 coach, Beyond Normal Fitness, Normal, IL.

  11. I understand the logic of using GMO ingredients, get desirable traits while growing higher yield per acre and with less resources. It’s a strong argument for the environment since animal meat is extremely costly. But nutrients aren’t free. High yield crops take nutrients from the soil at an unsustainable rate. As well as GMO crops in and of themselves being unethical to some. Animal genes are not considered animal proteins. So a fish gene can be but in a soy plant and it still be called vegetarian with no disclosure. It’s a stretch to say that food like this are the food future.

  12. Correct me if I’m wrong but I but I believe Beyond Meat products are non-GMO. Check them out, they are great. They are also gluten free.

  13. Until these plant based meat products are gmo free, I will stay clear from consuming. If your not familiar with the detrimental effects of gmo’s than google what gmo’s do to lab rats.
    I’m hopeful with all the technology God has put into man’s brains, they will produce a plant based meat, minus any gmo’s, for those of us that do not want to consume beef/meat products!
    As usual Chris, great article!

  14. Interesting. Animals do the same thing…turn plants into meat. So this simply removing the animal from the equation. I like the concept, but not too happy about the GMO aspect of it. But as long as that’s on the label, which gives me the knowledge to choose to partake or not, I’m OK with it.

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