Even though plant-based meat alternatives are ultra-processed, they still may be healthier for your heart than traditional meat is, a new review finds.

Risk factors for heart disease, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and body weight, all improved when meats were replaced with a plant-based substitute, according to the analysis published Tuesday in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology

In one clinical trial reviewed, people consuming plant-based alternatives saw a 13% reduction in total cholesterol, a 9% reduction in LDL cholesterol, a 53% reduction in triglycerides and an 11% rise in “good” HDL cholesterol.

“Plant-based meat is a healthy alternative that is clearly associated with reduced cardiovascular risk factors,” senior study author Dr. Ehud Ur, a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told NBC News.

Still, the researchers did find a wide variation in the nutritional value of meat substitutes, such as in the amount of sodium and saturated fat they contained.

For example, Ur’s team focused on two burger brands: an older one and a newer one that tasted more like beef. The older burger had 6% of the recommended daily allowance for saturated fat, compared to 30% in the newer burger. Meanwhile, the older brand had 0% cholesterol, compared with 27% in the newer brand. 

Most meat substitutes are highly processed, and such foods tend to be low in fiber and loaded with salt, sugar and additives, NBC News reported. 

But Ur argued that not all ultra-processed foods are bad for the heart.

“In and of itself, processing is not necessarily a bad thing,” Ur said. “It’s true that these plant-based meats are highly processed, but not in the sense that they have lots of saturated fats or certain carbohydrates that are associated with adverse outcomes.”

A randomized trial looking at heart attack and stroke in people who eat meat substitutes compared to regular meat eaters is needed next, Ur said. 

“Obviously, it could be difficult to conduct a double-blind trial because people might be able to tell whether they were eating meat or an alternative,” he acknowledged. “But some of the newer plant-based meats are very close in flavor to actual meat.”

Still, Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told NBC News that, “in general, the best option would be to consume whole foods.”

But not everyone can do that, “so I do think there is space for foods that might be called ultra-processed,” he added.

He pointed to a study published in 2020 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in which participants consumed meat for eight weeks and then a plant-based meat alternative for eight weeks.

When participants ate the meat alternative, “cholesterol and blood pressure were reduced by about 10%, which is pretty substantial,” Willett said. “Just the fact that something might fall under the definition of ultra-processed doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Dr. Anu Lala, director of heart failure research at the Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital in New York City, told NBC News that longer follow-up studies are needed to determine whether plant-based meat alternatives are healthier.

“There needs to be a concerted effort — like there has been with the Mediterranean diet — to understand the plant-based dietary programs and their long-term effects,” Lala said.

More information

Consumer Reports has more on plant-based meat alternatives.

SOURCES: Canadian Journal of Cardiology, June 2024; NBC News