New plant-based meat alternatives look, cook, and taste more like actual meat than ever before. But are these highly processed foods really better for you? And what's the environmental impact of all that processing?
The market for plant-based meat alternatives is growing fast, but many are wondering whether these meat-free yet highly-processed foods are really a better choice, in terms of nutrition or the environment. These days, we’re also curious about how various foods and dietary patterns affect the microbiome, which in turn influences so many aspects of our health. And there’s some new research on that to share.
First, let me clarify what type of foods we’re talking about. We’re not talking about cultured meat products, which are actual meat but produced without animals.
I’m also not referring to veggie burgers, bean burgers, and other products which aren’t trying to mimic the flavor and texture of meat. (Or at least, aren’t trying very successfully!)
I’m talking about products that are designed not just to stand in for meat but to mimic it with increasing verisimilitude. For example, Impossible Burger, Beyond Burger, and Meatless Farm all have products that look and cook just like raw ground beef. They are often sold right next to the actual ground beef and are packaged so similarly that if you weren’t paying attention, you might easily think they were ground beef.
These types of plant-based meat alternatives are not intended for people who find the idea of eating meat disgusting. These are for people who really enjoy eating meat but feel like it would be better for their health—or the health of the planet—not to.
But would it? Let’s take a closer look at how they stack up.
Are meatless burgers more nutritious?
While old-school veggie burgers are often lower in fat and calories, the new plant-based meat alternatives are formulated to be much closer to the nutrient profile of meat. They have close to the same amount of protein, fat, and calories. Some even have the same amount of saturated fat and heme iron, a form of iron that is normally only found in animal foods. So, they may not offer the same nutritional advantages that people generally expect from a vegetarian diet.
One advantage that these plant-based meat alternatives do retain, however, is that they do not create heterocyclic amines (HCA) when grilled. These compounds are created when meat or fish are cooked over direct or high heat and have been linked to cancer. The amino acids involved in this reaction are only present in animal muscle tissue. So, grilling a plant-based burger will not create HCAs and does not pose this danger.
But remember that the context in which we consume a food also matters. One of the ways that eating a lot of hamburgers might drag down the nutritional quality of your diet is not the burger itself but what goes with it: the bun, french fries, and a soda or milkshake. Simply inserting a plant-based burger instead of a beef patty into a fast-food meal obviously doesn’t mitigate all of those other factors.
And finally, it’s worth mentioning that these plant-based alternatives are all considered ultra-processed foods, a category of foods that we are supposed to be eschewing. Ultra-processed foods are those in which a large proportion of the ingredients are not foods or ingredients that you might use in your own kitchen but extracts, isolates, fractions, concentrates, additives, and other industrially manipulated compounds. Diets that contain a lot of ultra-processed foods have been linked with a lot of adverse health outcomes.
But I think it’s also worth taking into account the purpose that the processing serves. In this case, the primary purpose of all that processing is not to turn cheap ingredients into irresistible, high-calorie snack foods with a high profit margin and indefinite shelf life. It’s done in order to produce a plant-based product that is sufficiently similar to meat that a meat-lover would be willing or even happy to have it instead.
Some would argue that, in this case, the downside of more processing is offset by the upside of not eating meat. And that argument might be more compelling if your primary motivation for avoiding meat is a concern for the impact on animals or the environment, as opposed to your own health and nutrition
Are plant-based meat alternatives easier on the environment?
When it comes to animal welfare, meat-free burgers clearly have the advantage. No cows are involved, except perhaps in fertilizing the field in which the soybeans are grown. But when it comes to the impact on the environment, it’s not as straightforward.
Calculating the environmental impact of any product is enormously complex. A product's carbon footprint takes into account greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But GHGs are not all equivalent in their impacts. Methane, for example, is much more potent than carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, however, it doesn't persist in the environment nearly as long as carbon dioxide. Methane that’s generated through animal agriculture (i.e. cow farts) also impacts the environment much differently than methane that’s generated when fossil fuels are burned. Simple comparisons of total greenhouse gas emissions may be misleading.
There’s also water and land use to consider, and the impact on biodiversity and soil quality. And then there’s the question of where in the lifecycle of a product your analysis starts and stops. Are you only measuring the impacts of growing the food or are you also including the impacts of processing, packaging, storage, and transportation? Whenever you’re trying to compare environmental impacts, you want to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples.
If you’re just looking at what it takes to produce the raw commodity, soy and other crops have a much lower environmental impact than beef. But processing is also energy and resource intensive—and all the processing involved in turning plants into something that looks an awful lot like ground beef adds a lot to the environmental impact of plant-based meat alternatives.
Plant-based meat alternatives still have a lower environmental impact than beef. But their environmental impact is much higher than whole or minimally processed plant foods. If protecting the environment is your primary motivator, you might want to choose a plant-based burger instead of a beef burger but still make that a once- or twice-a-month meal, instead of a weekly one. (That’s basically what we’ve done in my household.)
How does fake meat affect your microbiome?
And finally, there’s new research on the impact of plant-based meat alternatives on the microbiome. Researchers gathered a small group of subjects, all of whom reported eating some sort of animal product (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or cheese) on a daily basis. Half of them continued as before. The other half substituted a plant-based meat alternative (such as a raw ground meat product) for meat at least four times per week for four weeks.
The researchers were interested to see how this real-world scenario, which was designed to mimic how “flexitarian” consumers might actually use these products, would affect the microbiome. And the results were...not very exciting.
They did see a difference in the microbiome of the group that ate the plant-based meat alternatives and some of those differences were in a direction that would generally be considered beneficial. But the difference was very small. Substituting plant-based meat alternatives for meat—even if you don’t adopt a strictly vegan diet—might lead to minor but positive shifts in the microbiome.
However, the researchers note that this finding, even as modest as it is, could be an argument for removing that damning “ultra-processed” designation from this particular class of processed foods.
What do you think? Have you replaced any of the meat in your life with one of these more highly processed meat alternatives? Or do you find them too processed (or simply not appetizing)? I’d love to hear what you think. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the listener line at the number below and leave me a voicemail.