The world is slowly becoming aware that meat production is unhealthy and unsustainable. Documentaries like Cowspiracy and Sir David Attenborough’s new film “A Life on our Planet” are bringing attention to animal agriculture’s contribution to deforestation, water use, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Our insatiable desire to eat the flesh of other beings is fast leading us to premature death from heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Media attention is raising awareness of animal cruelty inside factory farms and in the live export industry. And let’s not forget that eating animals has increased the risk of more pandemics from zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
As a result, the need to replace meat consumption with a suitable alternative is growing. Whether you call these plant-based meats, meat alternatives or fake meats, they all have the same endpoint: to reduce the consumption of animal flesh. Move aside tofu, here comes plant-based meats, and they are providing a sustainable and tasty alternative. But the question we should all be asking ourselves is are these actually a healthier alternative?
Plant-based meats: what are they made from anyway?
There is a growing number of plant-based meat substitutes on the market. They can be made to resemble beef, chicken and fish, and can come in the form of burger patties, nuggets, sausages and even crumbles. Ingredients used to create these meat alternatives include legumes like chickpeas and soybeans. Even green jackfruit is used to resemble the muscle fibers of an animal in some dishes.
Other meat substitutes are being developed that taste, feel and “bleed” like meat. Some companies are using heme iron, sourced from the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast, to recreate the flavour and aroma of cooked meat.
The next step in this meat replacement “food chain” are laboratory-cultured meats. Industries are taking tiny biopsies the size of sesame seeds from an animal of choice and culturing the cells in huge vats. The difference between these and other meat alternatives is that they are actually identical to meat from an animal, but are cultured in a laboratory rather than grown on a factory farm.
But is a plant-based meat healthier than eating animals?
Global fast-food giants are supporting this growing demand for meat alternatives by providing meatless burgers. They are also available in most supermarkets these days, and are becoming more affordable as demand grows. Even high-end restaurants are getting on the meat-alternative bandwagon. A recently opened vegan butcher in London found it difficult to keep up with the overwhelming demand for their products. So, with such growing interest, should we be asking if meat substitutes are better for our health than the real thing? The answer isn’t completely clear-cut.
They can be an excellent source of protein, contain less fat than meat and even contain vitamins like B12. And, plants don’t contain nearly the same levels of environmental contaminants that bioaccumulate in livestock and therefore in meat. Then there’s the carcinogenic nature of red meat cooked at high temperatures, particularly processed meats, which we don’t see in high levels in plants. Overall, diets high in animal proteins are positively correlated with all-cause mortality (death), whereas sourcing protein from plants doesn’t show the same association.
In order to make them “juicy”, fake meats often contain unhealthy ingredients like saturated fats. These fats can be sourced from coconut or palm oil, which are not health-promoting in themselves as they have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol levels. Plant-based meats also contain about the same number of calories as real meat, so if it’s weight loss you are after then perhaps they won’t be of much benefit.
Another concern with plant-based meats is that some contain soy protein islolates, which have been shown in some studies to raise the cancer-promoting substance ‘insulin-like growth factor 1’ (IGF-1). Similarly, too much heme iron can lead to iron overload and increase cancer risk, whereas non-heme iron from plants doesn’t have this effect. Sodium can also be excessively high in many plant-based meats, and is linked to an increased risk of stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, cancer and some autoimmune diseases.
Make an informed choice
Ultra-processed plant-based meat imitations are a transition food for those trying to move away from eating animals, but overall provide few dietary benefits. However, they are important for a number of reasons. They can help people transition away from eating animals towards a plant-based diet, which is essential for the sustainability of the planet. They use less water to produce, take up less land area to grow and produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
One thing we can be certain of, though, is that healthier alternatives will appear on the shelves and restaurants with growing demand. Until then, get creative and make your own veggie burgers with black beans, crumb and bake cauliflower to make buffalo wings or use tofu in a wrap. The bottom line is that the closer we get to eating plants in their whole form, rather than ultra-processed products, the healthier we will become.