Plant-Based Meats are Healthier and Greener…Right?
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Long gone are the days when Quorn was the only mainstream, meat-free protein source. Plant-based meat substitutes (PBMS) are flooding the market. More and more people are switching from animal proteins to these substitutes in the belief that they are better for the environment and overall health. However, is there evidence that plant-based proteins have an environmental advantage over their animal counterparts? And does, in fact, swopping your Big Mac for an ‘Impossible Burger’ improve your health?
Alternative proteins are key to transitioning to a sustainable food system (European Commission, 2020). Amongst these alternative proteins are cell-based protein and plant-based protein. The former constitutes lab-grown cells extracted from an animal to create meat. The latter uses plant-extracts to create a product that mimics a specific animal-meat product (Roos, 2019). While cell-based alternatives have yet to reach mass market, one cannot miss the flurry of new plant-based meat substitutes (PBMS), now available in supermarket aisles and on fast-food chain menus.
As of January 2021, the number of vegans in the world represents approximately 14 percent of the world’s population (Meyer, 2021). That equates to 79 million people! Driven by the desire to prevent animal suffering, save the environment and improve health, plant-based eating has become increasingly popular (Spector, 2022) and the number of people in the world who identify as vegan, or vegetarian is growing at an unprecedented rate.
In the UK, this number increased by 400 percent between 2014 and 2019 (with nearly half of those between the age of 15 and 34) (Spector, 2022). In the US, the number increased by a remarkable 600 percent between 2014-2017 (Meyer, 2021). Even non-vegans and vegetarians have reduced their meat intake – already three years ago almost two-thirds of the world’s population was eating less or starting to avoid it altogether (Pellman Rowland, 2018).
With clear market signals, the industry is responding by changing and innovating at a rapid pace. Considering declining meat sales, Tyson Foods, the biggest meat producer in the USA, has started to reinvent itself as a protein company with meat substitutes (Spector, 2022). $3.1 billion was invested into alternative protein companies in 2020 alone, signalling the massive market momentum for these new products (Keerie, 2021).
PBMS are often advertised as healthier and greener alternatives to meat products. At a time when dietary challenges, such as malnutrition and obesity, continue to pose a serious threat to human health, the health of the entire natural world is at stake – partly due to the augmented effects of our dietary choices and preferences. It is not surprising that so many people jump on the silver-bullet wagon, promising that PBMS can improve health and save the environment. This article will dig deeper into the science and numbers behind these claims and analyse the pros and cons of PBMS.
Are PBMS better for your health than animal meat?
To answer this question, we first must understand the wider health implications of adopting a plant-based diet (PBD) over one that is meat-based. The truth of the matter is that scientific results are mixed.A large, meta-analysis concluded that a PBD was associated with favourable effects on health-risk factors compared to meat-eaters (Benetar, 2018)). Another study found that a PBD can reduce the risk of coronary-heart disease (CHD) by up to 40 percent (Kahleova, 2017)). A more recent study distinguished between healthy and non-healthy PB foods and found that the former reduced the risk for CHD while unhealthy PB foods increased it (Appleby, 2016).
This means that just because you eat a plant-based diet it doesn’t mean that you are improving your health. It does mean that one needs to be more discerning among PB food choices as some e.g., whole grains, whole fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes – bring health benefits while others e.g. juices, refined grains, potatoes, fries, and sweets – pose health risks. In other words – Doritos are meat-free, that doesn’t make them healthy.When it comes to mortality rates, the scientific community has yet to conclude consistent effects. No study has yet proven that a plant-based diet decreases the risk of early death compared to that of meat-eaters. (Spector, 2022)
Greater consistency exists in research done on weight-loss from adopting a PBD. One study showed that vegans had the healthiest and lowest body mass index (BMI) compared to vegetarians and meat-eaters. This may have implications for counteracting the ever-increasing problem of obesity (Fonnebo, 2013). However, in a twin-study involving 122 British identical twin pairs (one following a PBD and the other a meat eater), researchers found only a negligible difference in body weight (1.3 kilos less for the PBD twin), thus suggesting that our genes and not just our dietary choices play an important role in determining body weight (Spector, 2022).
Spector (2020) stresses that many of the health benefits empirically associated with a PBD are likely due to eating more plants – and a variety of them. This is thanks to the higher fibre content and intake of antioxidants that a healthy PBD brings. A higher quantity of fibre is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Furthermore, antioxidants are associated with improved gut health and the prevention of dementia (Billingsley, 2018).
Are plant-based meats substitutes healthier than actual meat?
Based on calories alone, PBMS are generally “healthier” than animal-based meat (Roos, 2019)). For example, Burger King’s ‘Impossible Whopper’ has a lower content in calories, fat, and cholesterol than the regular ‘Whopper’. However, PBMS are relatively higher in sodium than their animal counterparts as seen in the ‘Impossible Whopper’ which contains significantly more sodium than the regular ‘Whopper’ (Roos, 2020). High sodium consumption can raise blood pressure; a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).
Moreover, PBMS often contain numerous highly processed ingredients including modified food starch, cultured dextrose and soy protein isolates which are used to provide the right texture and moisture level and extend the product’s shelf life (Roos, 2019). But they also have a darker side to them. For instance, reports show that modified food starches cause allergies, headaches, diarrhoea, bloating, other forms of digestive distress, fatigue and more (Teller, 2020). Cultured dextrose, even if widely used today, has not been granted GRAS status (Generally Regarded as Safe) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2021). Furthermore, soy protein isolates contain phytates, which can decrease the body’s ability to absorb minerals (Goodson, 2018).
If the main benefit of eating a plant-based diet is extra fibre and antioxidants that come from eating a variety of vegetables, it is arguable that PBMS fail to provide these. The ‘Impossible Burger’ contains only three grams of fibre, which is roughly five times less than that of a bean burger. According to Spector (2022) the greatest health benefits occur at more than 25 grams of fibre a day, meaning that you would have to eat more than eight ‘Impossible Burgers’ in a day to reach this optimum level. In doing so though, you would also be consuming high levels of highly processed and potentially harmful ingredients that you or your body wouldn’t naturally recognise. You are also less likely to be able to access any of the good stuff and your sodium levels would be through the roof.
But this doesn’t mean that animal-meat products are any better, which, incidentally, contain zero fibre. In an interview conducted by NBC News (Roos, 2019), Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, states that industrial meat often is chemically treated and contaminated with bacteria. Antibiotics are often our last line of defence against many diseases. Freidrish highlights the growing problem of antibiotic resistance in people caused by the ‘over-use’ of antibiotics within the meat industry. Antibiotic resistance is recognized as a ‘global health emergency’ by the United Nations - already, 700,000 people die each year of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and by 2050, this number could hit five million people in Asia alone (United Nations , 2018).
Are plant-based proteins better for the environment?
The importance of reducing the global carbon footprint is widely accepted. One of the best ways to do this is by changing our diets following the simple equation of eating less animals and more plants. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse emissions and most of those emissions come from the beef industry (Newburger & Lucas, 2019)
Besides the carbon footprint, when assessing the environmental impact of a food, we also need to consider some additional key elements such as how much land and water is used in their production. By cutting out animals from the food chain, plant nutrients and fresh water can be directly a by us instead of going through a whole animal lifecycle first and this allows us to free up crop land to feed more people. Compared to beef production, the makers of ‘Beyond Burgers’ and ‘Impossible Burgers’ claim a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by around 89 percent, land use by 96 percent and water use by 87% (Hayek & Dutkiewicz, 2021).
These statistics, however, have come under criticism. In an NBC news report, Marco Springmann, senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health at Oxford University claims “these companies make wild claims without being able to back these up with any independent analysis”. He further states “these claims are based on nothing but third-party, potential estimates of emissions.” (Roos, 2019) One also needs to consider how PBMS compare to non-processed plant foods. PBMS still have a five-fold higher carbon footprint than legumes (Newburger & Lucas, 2019). While methods for measuring the carbon footprint need to be improved, the existing data does show PBMS have a significantly smaller environmental impact than those of conventional protein sources. So, compared to meat products, they are better for the environment, but they are still multiple times worse than non-processed, plant-based foods.
To answer the question if PBMS better for both health and the environment – the answer, unfortunately, is not a simple “yes” or “no”.
Health aspects are determined by the type of ingredients and level of processing that go into these substitutes. Certain ingredients and the degree of processing can even be harmful to health. This calls for greater transparency from growing PBMS industry and perhaps more scrutiny on a consumer-level. Instead of taking them by face value, have look on back label and watch out for high levels of sodium, modified starch and any other weird ingredients that might not even be regarded as safe by food our authorities.
When it comes to the environment, the short answer is ‘yes”. However, the evidence supporting these claims unfortunately lack transparency. Some even argue that the true carbon footprint is much larger than company reports show. If a plant-based burger has a carbon footprint five times that of a bean patty, is it really the solution for the pressing dangers of irreversible climate change?
In summary, switching to PBMS might slightly lower your BMI but it will not increase life expectancy by any existing scientific data, nor improve health due to the high levels of processing and harmful ingredients PBMS are often subject to. On the other hand, by avoiding industrially scaled meats you are lessening the risk of foodborne disease and preventing antibiotic resistance, thereby (theoretically) preventing some illnesses, and strengthening our chances of survival if we would fall seriously ill.
Early data suggest that PBMS have the power to effect extreme savings in carbon, and usage of land and water – having the potential to contribute significantly to our climate emergency and looming global food crisis. But at the end of the day, an unprocessed plant-based diet is still much healthier for us and for our planet than any PBMS is today.
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