I have switched to a number of plant based meat alternatives. Generally, I’ve done this where I’m trying to keep a particular style of meal like a burger (although I also enjoy a portobello mushroom burger). So convenience and familiarity play a role. But I admit to wondering whether these alternatives are actually environmentally better and how they compare health wise to their animal based inspirations.
Bryant (2022) conducted a meta-analysis (reviewing a large number of published, peer reviewed articles) on both topics. The environment is pretty clear. Depending on the category examined including carbon emissions, water use, and land use, the improvements fell anywhere between less than 10% to greater than 90%. The biggest differences, are, not surprisingly, compared to red meat. But generally speaking, plant based alternatives have lower environmental impacts across the board compared to meat. Energy use had not been examined enough to draw conclusions.
So what about health? In many ways, the plant based alternatives come out ahead. Considering that red meat is officially classified as a carcinogen (causes cancer), the plant based alternatives are not. The plant alternatives are also lower in saturated and trans fat, and higher in good cholesterol. Specific studies found that the plant alternatives were beneficial for weight loss and muscle building. They could also be used to target specific health conditions based on different properties such as whether they trigger insulin release or not. On the negative side, some options had higher salt content.
If the research is relatively clear, why do so many people like me have doubts about whether they are better? Bryant also reviewed a number of studies that looked at consumer perceptions and one of the main challenges is the idea of the plant based alternatives being heavily processed. Not only have we been taught that processed meats and other foods are less healthy, there have been lobbying campaigns to raise questions about how processed the plant alternatives are. In the case of the plant based options, processing can actually improve the health profile of the food because it can add nutrients such as a wider range of amino acids (used for building proteins) or accessible iron (iron your body can use). Processing can also remove negative nutrients such as those that limit absorption of other healthy nutrients.
The article is a bit of a long read, but it contains so much useful analysis. It made me feel a whole lot better about the meat substitutes that I’ve been enjoying. Which brings me to a last key point. They are meat substitutes. These items aren’t replacing my side salad or vegetables, they are replacing the meat. So I’m not losing the benefits of whole fruits and vegetables, I’m losing the negative impacts of the meat, especially red meat. As a result, these foods are creating an important cultural option that allows people to maintain specific meals they enjoy while reducing the environmental impacts and likely improving health outcomes.