Photo: ablokhin (iStock)

As food trends go, it’s difficult to argue that anything has caused a bigger sea change so far throughout 2019 than the arrival of plant-based “meats.”A-list fast-food chains have embraced the alternative options, major production companies are moving past chicken nuggets and burgers into even more complicated food replication, and the products are even finding some of their greatest success among meat-eaters.

The existing substitutes from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have tended to be vaunted as a healthier alternative to beef. But while that may be true as it pertains to things like cholesterol (Beyond and Impossible burgers contain none) or their overall environmental impact, some are preaching caution when it comes to assessing how healthy they may be. Among them: Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who reminded consumers in a recent CNBC interview that even a plant-based burger is still a highly processed food.

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Mackey, who’s kept a vegan diet for over 20 years, preached caution around the overall public perception of such products: “The [brands] who are capturing the imagination of people—and I’m not going to name these brands because I’m afraid I will be associated with the critique of it, but some of these that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods.”

He went on to suggest that “I don’t think eating highly processed foods is healthy. I think people thrive on eating whole foods...”—ooh, good job working that brand name in, John!

Mackey goes on: “As for health, I will not endorse that, and that is about as big of criticism that I will do in public.” While the irony of Mackey’s company selling Beyond products will hardly be lost on some, his point is valid enough; a Beyond or Impossible burger has only a slightly lower caloric count than one made from beef, and contains some of the same additives as other highly processed foods.

However, Mackey does acknowledge the value of plant-based meats as a step on the path to healthier eating: “A lot of people say ... that [plant-based] meat is a transition food, meaning it’s a way for [people] to begin to re-educate [their] palates.” Whatever the future holds for plant-based meat, the debate over their merits is just getting started.

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