Are Plant-Based Meats Better Than the “Old” Meat?

Plant-based milk slowly gained traction over the years, growing from just 1% to 13% of the fluid dairy market in the US, and plant-based meats are following suit. With increasing concerns about the environmental consequences of eating meat, many Americans are looking for ways to reduce their own carbon footprint. The recent introduction of the “Impossible Burger” at Burger King has convinced many people that swapping meat for meatless isn’t necessarily the worst idea. 

In many ways, meat production affects climate change. The land dedicated towards animal agriculture adversely alters our environmental system, from micro changes in biodiversity to macro changes in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Phelps 2017).  According to UN estimations, the human population is projected to grow to nearly 9.5 billion by 2050 (UN 2019). Coupled with rising incomes in developing countries and growing urbanization costs, the global food demand will only continue to increase. In addition, the types of food demanded, as well as the nutritional expectations of these foods, will also be different. Hence, the ecological and social trade-offs of allocating more land towards animal agriculture drives innovation for more sustainable plant-based options over traditional animal products. 

Figure 1. Methane emissions from manure and manure management contributes to nearly half of the overall global livestock emissions. 

While GHG emissions are a primary cause of global warming (IPCC 2014), many people believe carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels to be the largest contributor. While this is true, non-carbon dioxide GHG such as methane (MH4), emitted as a by-product of digestive microbes fermenting the feed consumed by livestock, also account for about 14.5% of total GHG emissions (Caro 2014). Considering this, it is clear that abstaining from eating livestock would drive down overall emissions by quite a bit (FAO 2013).  

The amount of resources allocated to the production and maintenance of livestock is staggering and has a noticeable impact on global emission (Figure 1). Alternative plant-based meat products are comparatively more green. The Beyond Burger, for instance, “generates 90% less GHG emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a 1⁄4 pound of U.S. beef” (Heller 2018). 

Despite the myriad of environmental benefits, reducing dependence on the agricultural industry can have varied effects on international trade and the economy. Hong Kong, for example, lacks the agricultural land and infrastructure to be self-sufficient yet it is entirely food-secure (Schmidhuber 2007). This is largely made possible by the international food trade, which plays a key role in enabling regional food security. The trade of meat from resource-abundant to resource-deprived countries can be socially beneficial; however, it is also a  source of hidden emission costs. Many studies investigating the impact of livestock emissions are limited to emissions from factory production and do not consider the contributions of emissions from international trading (Tubiello 2013). Hence, the underrepresentation of international trading emissions may embolden companies to export livestock products to consumer countries at the cost of increased emissions due to poor regulation. This unfortunately means that companies can earn a profit while increasing their GHG emissions and will continue to do so (Caro 2014). 

In contrast, plant-based meats could create a radically different food chain, starting from the distribution to the point of sale. Heller et al. provides a detailed life-cycle assessment of the Beyond Burger in comparison to a traditional meat patty (Figure 2). In this case, the unit for comparison was defined as a 4 oz. patty. 

Figure 2. The environmental impact of the Beyond Burger is significantly less than that compared to a traditional beef patty. 

In a side by side comparison (Figure 2), the Beyond Burger is more environmentally sustainable than a traditional beef patty. This is largely because the Beyond Burger patty uses alternative sources of protein such as pea protein, mung beans, and rice to recreate the taste and appearance of what consumers have come to expect from meat. This reduces the distribution impacts across the Beyond Burger life cycle for GHG emissions, energy use, and land use in comparison to a traditional beef patty. 

While plant-based meats such as the “Beyond Burger” are more environmentally sustainable, they are not necessarily as healthy as they are marketed to be. It is true that when it comes to choosing between a traditional beef patty and a Beyond burger, the latter is the healthier choice. A plant-based patty can provide the same number of calories as a similarly-sized beef patty, with less cholesterol and less fat. However, they are still highly processed products that have harmful ingredients like saturated fats. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products are not the dietary savior the plant-based meats industry has made them out to be.

Figure 3. The ingredient list emphasizes that just because it is a vegetarian product, does not mean it is all healthy. They use marketing terms such as ‘pea protein isolate ’, which is an additive that functions similarly to monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Hidden in the long list of ingredients used in the Beyond Burger (Figure 3), for instance, is protein isolate, which stimulates a similar bodily response as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Pea protein isolate is relatively new and contains processed MSG, which is one of the most widely used food-additives in commercial food due to the umami flavor it provides. Unfortunately, consumption of MSG has been linked to adverse health effects such as central nervous system disorders, obesity, and insulin resistance (Niaz 2018).

The growth of the plant-based meats industry seems to be continuously expanding with increased demand for meat alternatives from the general public. Even Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat processing companies in America, has a foot in the plant-based meat industry as an early investor of Beyond Meat. Intensifying concerns over climate change and healthier eating habits has driven a consumer demand for meatless alternatives like the Beyond Burger. But while meatless burgers are better for the environment, keep in mind that they are not necessarily always the healthiest choice. 

Edited by Jahnvi Jain

References

Caro, D., LoPresti, A., Davis, S. J., Bastianoni, S., & Caldeira, K. (2014, November 13). CH4 and N2O emissions embodied in international trade of meat. Environmental research letters, vol. 9, no. 11. Retrieved from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/9/11/114005

Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf

Heller, M. C., & Keoleian, G. A. (2014, September 14). Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Life Cycle Assessment. Retrieved from http://css.umich.edu/sites/default/files/publication/CSS18-10.pdf

IPCC 2014: AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/

Niaz, K., Zaplatic, E., & Spoor, J. (2018, March 19). Extensive use of monosodium glutamate: A threat to public health? Retrieved from doi: 10.17179/excli2018-1092 

Phelps, L. N., & Kaplan, J. O. (2017, November). Land use for animal production in global change studies: Defining and characterizing a framework. Retrieved from doi: 10.1111/gcb.13732

Schmidhuber, J., & Tubiello, F. N. (2007, December 11). Global food security under climate change. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/104/50/19703

Tubeillo, N. F., Salvatore, M., Rossi, S., Ferrera, A., Fitton, N., Smith, P. (2013 February). The FAOSTAT database of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Environmental research letters, vol. 8, no. 1. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/climatechange/36143-0fa4483057747f41c08183b702ec5954e.pdf

World Population Prospects. Retrieved from https://population.un.org/wpp/

Image References

Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf

Heller, M. C., & Keoleian, G. A. (2014, September 14). Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Life Cycle Assessment. Retrieved from http://css.umich.edu/sites/default/files/publication/CSS18-10.pdf

Beyond Burger™. Retrieved from https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/the-beyond-burger/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *