What is All the Craze about Plant-Based Meat Substitutes?
“There is now a surprising alternative to giving up on meat altogether.”
For years, plant-based meat alternatives, typically made of vegetables, legumes and grains, were widely considered of interest mostly to vegans and vegetarians and were largely ignored by the mainstream US consumer. However, there is now a surprising alternative to giving up on meat altogether for those individuals who are unwilling to dramatically switch their traditional dietary habits, and don’t want to be labeled vegan.1 The recent introduction of plant-based meat products and their explosive increase in popularity during the last 5 years, in particular amongst millennials, is demonstrating that such a dramatic change is possible not only in the beef-addicted US but even in countries like Brazil and Argentina, in which daily consumption of beef is part of the national identity. For example, the number of vegetarians in Brazil doubled over a six-year period, which has given rise to a booming plant-based industry that is seeking to replace meatpacking plants, and at the same time reducing the devastating environmental impact of deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest to make room for cattle farms and soybean plantations.
Unlike other vegetarian meat substitutes like tofu, the new plant-based burgers seemed to be winning over even the most dedicated meat lovers. According to Darren Seifer, an analyst at NPD Market Research firm, 90 percent of the customers purchasing them are meat-eaters who believe the products are healthier and better for the environment.2 Substitutes like The Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat made with plant-based protein have shown up in fine-dining and fast food restaurants; celebrities like Bill Gates and Jessica Chastain have invested in these companies, and even some large meat companies have started producing them. Although their creation involves the much-maligned ultra-processing of food, Beyond Meat, one of the major companies competing in the plant-based meat business, said its products are made by layering in plant-based fats, binders, fruit and vegetable-based colors and flavors using a process of heating, cooling and pressure to create the fibrous texture of meat.
Plant-based meats are certainly good business
“The pandemic and its impact on the meat packing industry have turbocharged this increase in popularity.”
While sales of plant-based meat products have continuously grown over the past five years, the pandemic and its impact on the meat packing industry have turbocharged this trend. For example, Impossible Meat products are now sold in more than 3,000 stores, up from fewer than 200 in January. In the first quarter of the year, Beyond Meat, whose stock is publicly traded, reported 141 percent increase in net revenue over last year. Its products are now in 25,000 grocery stores nationwide, and the company recently expanded into China.
As quoted in a New York Times article on the topic,3 Alexia Howard, the senior research analyst of U.S. food at Bernstein, an equity research group said “We were saying that by 2030, Beyond Meat could have a $1 billion in sales. Now, we’re saying by the end of 2020, which is only 18 months later.”
According to the New York Times, Paul Shapiro, chief executive of the Better Meat Company, said it was the success of soy milk that pushed the plant-based meat movement into the mainstream. “Plant-based milk has grown from 1 percent of the fluid dairy market to 13 percent in the United States, whether that be soy, almond or coconut,” he said. Plant-based meat, which is about 1 percent of the meat market now, is following the same pattern, he added.
Are Plant-based Meat Substitutes Good for the Planet?
“…the Beyond Burger is an ultra-processed food with about 18 ingredients…”
It depends on what you’re eating. It is not typically as healthy as eating unprocessed vegetables and beans, and if it’s produced for fast-food outlets, it can be downright unhealthy. For example, the Beyond Burger has about 18 ingredients, including purified pea protein, coconut and canola oils, rice protein, potato starch and beet juice extract for coloring. The Impossible Whopper is made of 21 ingredients, including genetically modified soy protein concentrate as protein source. Compared to a beef patty, the Impossible and Beyond burgers have similar amounts of protein, total fat and calories, with a lower proportion of saturated fat and no cholesterol. While these plant-based products also contain fiber, real meat does not. If you consider the special packaging that goes into popular fast food products, the plant-based Beyond Famous Star burger with cheese at Carl’s Jr.’s is 770 calories, 44 grams of fat and 33 grams of protein, and this is before adding the calories from French fries and Coke. The Famous Star burger with cheese is 670 calories, 37 grams of fat and 28 grams of protein. For those watching their salt intake, the salt content of these burgers varies between 1,210 and 1,550 milligrams.
“Meat substitutes should be considered “transitional foods” for people who are trying to adopt healthier diets.”
Studies comparing the metabolic effects of eating beef burgers versus plant burgers are currently underway. According to Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the meat substitutes should be considered “transitional foods” for people who are trying to adopt healthier diets. However, he cautioned that replacing a hamburger with a plant burger is not an improvement in diet quality if you chase it with French fries and a sugar-laden soda. In August, Dr. Hu, along with a group of health and climate experts, published a report in JAMA that explored whether plant-based meats can be part of a “healthy low-carbon diet.”4 Hu emphasized that replacing red meat with nuts, legumes and other plant foods has been shown to lower mortality and chronic disease risk, but that it is not possible to extrapolate that processed burgers made with purified soy or pea protein will have the same health benefits.5
Are plant-based meats good for the planet?
““…livestock production accounts for at least half of human-caused greenhouse gases…”
According to Frances Moore Lappe, author of the 1971 best-selling book “Diet for a Small Planet”, our current food system is inefficient, unjust, illogical and destructive, an opinion shared by a growing number of individuals concerned about our health and the climate. The inefficiency of a diet based on animal protein is evident in more recent studies as well. For example, it takes more than 21 pounds of plant protein fed to a cow to produce just one pound of protein for people (Retro Report). According to United Nations researchers, roughly 80 percent of agricultural land worldwide is used to sustain livestock, a proportion that is unlikely to drop much when we see the president of Brazil being committed to deforesting the Amazon to clear a path for more cattle raising. “We use 77 percent of our agricultural land in the world for livestock that gives us 17 percent of our calories,” Ms. Lappé, 76, told The New York Times Magazine in 2019.
Agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases varies by country, depending on how animals are bred, herded and fed, but some experts say the overall number is much higher than 14.5 percent. Jeff Anhang, environmental and social specialist with the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, estimates that livestock production accounts for at least half of human-caused greenhouse gases.6 This happens because carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, is released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared to make room for animal feed production and livestock grazing. Animals also release methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, through burps and flatulence when digesting their food. In addition, animal manure and rice paddies are also huge sources of methane.
Joseph Poore, is a researcher at the University of Oxford who was the co-author of a 2018 article published in the journal Science examining the impact of food production, from deforestation to retail. “Avoiding meat and dairy, for the large majority of people, including Americans, is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact, not just on greenhouse gas emissions, but on land use, biodiversity loss, water pollution, pesticide use, antibiotic use and a range of other issues,” he said.
Very similar conclusions were reached by the EAT-Lancet report published in 2020 by an international committee led by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor Walter Willett.7
So, what is the bottom line?
To date, we can say with confidence that the rapid growth of plant-based meat products is good for business, the planet and for the inhumanely treated farm animals. However, until solid scientific evidence is available, I remain skeptical if it is also good for human health, in particular when these products are consumed with all the traditional fast-food additions (fat, salt, french fries, cheese, sweetened beverages, mayo and ketchup) so dear to the American consumer.
- Hu FB, Otis BO, McCarthy G. Can Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Be Part of a Healthy and Sustainable Diet? JAMA. 2019;322(16):1547-1548
Dr. Emeran Mayer is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Executive Director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA.