What You Should Know About Plant-Based Alternatives to Meat

Vegetarian alternatives to meat are nothing new — veggie burgers, vegan deli meat and chicken-less nuggets have been around for decades. But while these products typically have aimed to meet the needs of vegetarians and vegans and don’t consistently match the taste and texture of meat, newer plant-based alternatives to meat are attempting to mimic animal proteins as much as possible.

In this explainer, we’ll take a closer look at how these products are made, their nutritional attributes, and their environmental impact. To date, many of these new products have been created to serve as alternatives to foods traditionally made with red meat, like burgers and sausages, so we’ll focus on these alternatives. However, new products meant to mimic poultry, eggs and seafood are now also being sold, and more are coming to store shelves — an indicator that this novel wave in protein innovation may just be getting started.

How are plant-based alternatives to meat made?

How do plant-based alternatives stack up nutritionally?

All in all, there are noticeable nutritional differences between the plant and animal burgers, but to date there isn’t research to support whether these distinctions have an effect on health. Here’s what we do know: 1) red meat and processed meats have been associated with health conditions like cardiovascular disease,₁ type 2 diabetes₂ and some types of cancer₃; and 2) observational studies have shown that replacing red meat with plant foods like nuts and legumes is associated with lower risk of mortality from these conditions.₄ But because these new plant-based alternatives to meat are not whole plant foods, it’s unclear if they have the same health impact as replacing meat with beans or lentils.

Are plant-based alternatives healthier for the environment?

Many industries contribute to climate change, including animal agriculture. Livestock, specifically cattle, contribute about three percent of the total GHG emissions in the U.S.₈ At present, many ranchers and farmers are changing the way they raise animals to help reduce livestock emissions by incorporating techniques like regenerative agriculture and increasing pasture quality — the nutritional quality and intake of pasture plants consumed by livestock animals. These changes can help reduce the amount of methane gas emitted per unit of animal product.₉ Additionally, there are various efforts underway to capture methane from manure decomposition in order to produce renewable energy.

Provided that they are available in the local food supply, plant-based foods can help consumers meet nutritional requirements while generating fewer GHG emissions, compared with omnivorous diets or animal foods.₁₀ However, these comparisons do not account for the lower bioavailability of some nutrients in plant foods, such as iron and protein. This means that the proportion of these nutrients that are absorbed by the body from plant foods is lower than the proportion absorbed from animal foods. When land use and greenhouse gas emissions are calculated to factor in amino acid content and nutrient density, the environmental footprint of animal foods becomes more similar to that of plant foods.₁₁,₁₂

Summary

This article was originally published at foodinsight.org and contains contributions from Ali Webster, PhD, RD, Tamika Sims, PhD and Kris Sollid, RD.

REFERENCES

  1. Zhong, Victor W., Van Horn, Linda, Greenland, Philip, Carnethon, Mercedes R., Ning, Hongyan, Wilkins, John T., Lloyd-Jones, Donald M., Allen, Norrina B.Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality.” JAMA Internal Medicine, 2020.
  2. Talaei, Mohammad, Wang, Ye-Li, Yuan, Jian-Min, Pan, An, Koh, Woon-Puay. “Meat, Dietary Heme Iron, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: The Singapore Chinese Health Study.” American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 186, Issue 7, 1 October 2017, pp. 824–833.
  3. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. Continuous Update Project Expert Report 2018. Available at dietandcancerreport.org.
  4. Zheng, Y., Li, Y., Satija, A., Pan, A., Sotos-Prieto, M., Rimm, E., et al. “Association of changes in red meat consumption with total and cause specific mortality among US women and men: two prospective cohort studies.” BMJ 2019; 365:12110.
  5. Heller, M.C. and Keoleian, G.A. “Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger life cycle assessment: A detailed comparison between a plant-based and an animal-based protein source.” University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems; 14 September 2018.
  6. Dettling, J., Tu, Q., Faist, M., DelDuce, A., Mandelbaum, S. “A comparative life cycle assessment of plant-based foods and meat foods.” Quantis USA and MorningStar Farms; March 2016.
  7. Khan, S., Dettling, J., Loyola, C., Hester, J., Moses, R. “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Analysis of the Impossible Burger with Conventioanl Ground Beef Burger.” Quantis USA and Impossible Foods; 27 February 2019.
  8. Environmental Protection Agency. Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Published 9 September 2020. Retrieved 19 November 2020.
  9. Teague, W.R., Apfelbaum, S., Lal, R., Kreuter, U.P., Rowntree, J., Davies, C.A., Conser, R., Rasmussen, M., Hatfield, J., Wang, T., Wang, F., Byck, P. “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America.” J Soil and Water Conserv. March 2016. 71(2):156–164.
  10. Eshel, G., Stainier, P., Shepon, A., Swaminathan, A. “Environmentally Optimal, Nutritionally Sound, Protein and Energy Conserving Plant Based Alternatives to U.S. Meat.” Sci Rep. 8 August 2019;9(1):10345. Erratum in: Sci Rep. 20 September 2019;9(1):13888.
  11. Drewnowski, A., Rehm, C.D., Martin, A., Verger, E.O., Voinnesson, M., Imbert, P. “Energy and nutrient density of foods in relation to their carbon footprint.” Am J Clin Nutr. January 2015;101(1):184–91.
  12. Tessari, P., Lante, A., Mosca, G. “Essential amino acids: master regulators of nutrition and environmental footprint?Sci Rep. 25 May 2016;6:26074.

The International Food Information Council is a nonprofit organization communicating science-based information about health, nutrition and food production.