Sustainability awareness has brought vigor, enthusiasm, and new ways of thinking about the protein foods we eat. Plant-based, meatless meat selections have entered the mainstream, with various offerings available on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus.
As additional meatless meat menu items are introduced to the public, the same question seems to arise and circulate: Which is healthier: animal meat or plant-based alternatives?
But is that, actually, the most important question we should be asking? Shouldn’t comparisons between protein sources be the foundation for a more powerful and productive discussion: How can we adapt our meat-focused diets so we and the Earth are healthier?
Stats Point to the Rise of Meatless Meats
Responding to the devastating climate crisis, many companies are working to reduce the significant climate footprint of the animal-farmed meat industry by innovating ways to move to plant-based meat products. Tastewise, the AI platform that looks at data points for food and beverage brands, outlines the changes that are occurring quickly in the alternative meats industry.
- US menus have tapped significantly into plant-based meat interest with a +1,320% increase in menu mentions since pre-pandemic times.
- 9% of US restaurants already serve meat alternatives; they work more with Uber Eats than any other delivery platform.
- Sausage is the most replicated meat type in vegan dishes.
- Vegan jerky is the next plant-based trend to watch.
- Oregon prevails with the highest percentage of restaurants serving alternative meat; New Jersey is the next state to watch.
- At least $200 million is left on the table every year across delivery platform gaps of alt meat dishes.
- Personal health beats planetary health as the primary motivator for vegan meat consumption, but sustainability is increasingly on the rise in consumer interest.
- Beyond Meat is 2x more popular than Impossible meat on restaurant menus and 3x more popular in home use. However, Impossible meat is gaining ground.
What Do the Studies Say?
Alternative proteins are definitely gaining interest across many demographic groups. However, do these products meet the need for a well-balanced diet? Let’s see what recent research has uncovered.
A grant from Beyond Foods, a distributor of plant-based meat alternatives, compared the effect of consuming plant-based alternative meat as opposed to animal meat on health factors. Researchers looked at outcomes such as concentration of TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide), a gut-flora metabolite that indicates risk for cardiovascular disease, LDL cholesterol, and body weight. All 3 improved with the plant-based alternative foods.
An analysis of 37 plant-based ground beef alternative products available in the US in 2019 found that, overall, the beef alternative products had more fiber, folate, and manganese, and sometimes, but not always, offered reduced saturated fats. They were also generally lower in protein, high in sodium, and low in vitamin B12, the latter of which can only be found in animal products unless the items are fortified.
A study out of Australia profiled and compared plant-based meat substitutes with equivalent meat products from four metropolitan Sydney supermarkets. They collected nutrition information and Health Star Ratings from 137 products (50 burgers, 10 mince, 29 sausages, 24 chicken, 9 seafood, 15 other). Plant-based options were generally lower in kilojoules (units of energy) and total and saturated fat while being higher in carbohydrates, sugars, and dietary fiber compared with meat. Only 4% of products were low in sodium. Less than 24% were fortified with vitamin B12, 20% with iron, and 18% with zinc.
Like so many processed foods, alternative proteins offer consumers nutrients, but also had some negatives like a bit too much sodium, sugar, and carbs. Yet there is more to the discussion of alternative meat vs. animal meat than nutrient-to-nutrient comparisons. It’s important to look at a person’s entire diet before commenting on the individual alternative meat.
It’s necessary to consider the context in which a swap for meat is happening; what total individual foods are consumed on a daily basis? That totality combines to determine health outcomes — whether positive overall health attributes or nutrient deficiencies. Alternative meats are often considered a bridge to other non-animal protein sources. Edamame, tofu, and tempeh are examples of whole-soy products that offer protein and fiber. Across history, beans and rice have combined to produce a complete protein.
Red meat, on the other hand, is associated with many negative long-term health outcomes: increased risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers.
The Impacts of Food Production on the Planet
The beginning of this article questioned whether comparisons between meatless meat and animal meat should be the only area of inquiry. It may be more important to discuss ways that meatless meats serve as a bridge toward consuming fewer animal products. We must also make transparent the tremendous implications of animal meat’s impact on the environment, with a focus on its negative contributions to the climate crisis, animal welfare, and the role of livestock in increasing antibiotic resistance and spreading disease.
Fundamental to addressing the climate crisis is to provide food that can guarantee delivery of adequate nutrients to the population as a whole without relying on industrial animal agriculture. Innovations responding to the globally growing demand for alternative proteins definitely can alleviate pressures on the Earth’s natural resources.
The UN says that industrial meat production is one of the most destructive ways in which humans leave their footprint on the planet. Industrial meat is one of the biggest causes of deforestation globally, with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization finding that, over the past 25 years, forests have been cleared from an area the size of India for cattle ranching. Such alterations of agriculture and forest systems are affecting our current ecosystems and their services and potentially threaten our overall food, water, and livelihood security.
Researchers noted that alternative meat options are likely to have less environmental effects than industrial beef production based on the metrics analyzed. For example, the Beyond Meat study noted above revealed that its meatless meats reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, required 99% less water, and removed the need for 93% of pasture land as compared with traditional US beef. Alternative seafoods can be important additions to curb overfishing that can decrease fish populations, reduce biodiversity in the ocean, and harm habitats. Many plant-based seafood options list ingredients like peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, fava beans, and navy beans.
Plant-based meat alternatives can get to the market a lot faster than traditional meat, mitigating transportation emission effects on the environment. Forbes notes that the plant-based meat alternative supply chain is shorter and much more compact than the meat supply chain. For example, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods can produce about 1 million pounds of meat alternatives in about 68,000 square feet.
When compared to the amount of space needed to produce 1 million pounds of commercially farmed meat, the numbers are “staggering.” For cows for beef or veal, that same number would require over 6500 acres of land; for pigs, it would require over 165 acres. These numbers are in live weight — the weight of an animal before it has been slaughtered and prepared.
Yes, there are many questions we can pose when new products like plant-based meats come to market. Importantly, we need to look at our dinner plates on the table before us, assume critical distance, and muse whether our culturally-taught taste preferences for animal meat are really best for ourselves and the planet.
Infographic courtesy of Tastewise
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