Plant-Based Meat Is Not a Panacea
You have undoubtedly encountered the new wave of meat alternatives, whether online, on a plate, or both. As a result, people are asking questions about Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, and related innovations: Are they good for you? Good for the environment? Overall, are they reliably better in important ways than the meats they might replace?
Although the new incarnations are heralded as radically different, there have always been plant-based meat alternatives: tofu and tempeh, made from soy, are staples in Asian cuisines, and have become popular elsewhere. Texturized vegetable protein, or TVP, also made from soy, has long been available to home cooks looking to mimic the taste and texture of meat. More recently, Quorn makes available a fermented fungus product that can be used in home cooking; they have their own extensive line of ready-to-eat products as well.
Of course, for those who know how to cook — something, if not everything — replacing meat was an option before any major food industry advances. Assuming you don’t need your veggie burger to bleed, the artful assembly of whole-food plant ingredients can achieve delightful wonders.
Those content to avoid meat and eat plants all along have little need for the new wave of meat alternatives. But they have obvious appeal for people who like consuming meat but would prefer — always or sometimes — to avoid its liabilities: ethics and the treatment of our fellow creatures; environmental impact; and direct human health effects.
There is little legitimate doubt or debate regarding the benefits across all three of these broad questions of simply eating whole plant foods in the place of meat: most notably, beans and legumes, the world’s most important protein sources. There is little legitimate doubt or debate regarding the expanse of benefits when whole plant foods are used as ingredients to make patties or burgers. No animals are harmed; the environmental impact is considerably lower; the provision of protein is more than ample; and beans are prominent staples in the world’s most healthful diets.
For better or worse, such approaches to meat substitution seem like yesterday’s news. How, then, do the products of advanced food processing fare with regard to animal treatment, environmental impact, and health effects?
Ethics and the treatment of our fellow creatures
Since both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are vegan, absent any beasts of burden lugging baskets of components, we may safely conclude that these products are a whole lot kinder and gentler to our fellow creatures than meat.
That said, there is at least one notable caveat in this category. Soy — commodity, GMO soy at that — is a primary ingredient in the Impossible Burger, and, as a product of monoculture (i.e., large expanses devoted to a single crop), industrially produced soy displaces and disrupts rich ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, as well as formerly rich ecosystems like the American Midwest. So while these products reliably spare domestic animals, implications for wildlife are less definitive. Still, we may reliably give meat alternatives a huge advantage in the animal ethics column.
The environmental footprint of foods and dietary patterns is subtle and complex, encompassing land use, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and ecosystem incursions that impact biodiversity, to name just the most salient components. None of these is simple: For example, water consumption matters a lot where water supplies are overused and waning, but much less in regions where water is bountiful.
But despite subtleties, we know beyond a reasonable doubt that beef has an outsized footprint relative to every alternative. To the extent that meat alternatives are actually alternatives to beef, it benefits the environment.
What else could they be than alternatives to beef? Among those already committed to beans rather than beef, the new meat alternatives could conceivably invite a move from whole and minimally processed plant foods to an ultraprocessed counterpart. In those cases, the environmental footprint might grow rather than shrink. But unless the new offerings were taken up almost exclusively by devoted vegans — pretty unlikely — an overall benefit is highly likely. Again, a big overall advantage to meat alternatives, even ultraprocessed ones, in the environmental impact column.
In this area — direct human health effects of new meat alternatives — we know just about nothing. There have been no randomized trials, let alone large and long-term trials suitable for detecting health consequences of diets comparable but for meat versus Beyond or Impossible.
Meat (and especially processed meat) is an established health hazard, partly because of the animal protein and saturated fat it adds to the diet and partly because of the plant foods it displaces. But ultraprocessed foods (both Beyond and Impossible qualify as such on the NOVA scale) in general are implicated in all the same assaults on well-being and waistlines. This can occur even when all of the ingredients are deemed safe in isolation, because their combination may be a goad to appetite and overeating.
Accordingly, we can’t safely assume a net health benefit of the new meat alternatives versus meat. A health benefit is more likely when processed meat alternatives are replacing meat that is itself rather highly processed, as is apt to be the case with burgers, hot dogs, sausage, and most fast-food offerings. A benefit is less likely if the meat being replaced is unprocessed and from lean, well-fed, pasture-raised animals or game.
Perhaps here the best precedent is precautionary: When vegetable oils were “processed” (i.e., partially hydrogenated) into trans fat, they wound up far worse for health than the animal fats they were intended to replace. All of the ingredients in the new meat substitutes are generally recognized as safe (i.e., GRAS) by the FDA — but partially hydrogenated oils were in that category, too, before they were convicted of crimes against our coronary arteries and banned. Widely used sugar substitutes are cataloged as GRAS, too, but doubt persists about their putative health benefits, and the latest research rekindles concerns about potential harm.
Whenever making food from anything other than established food, the precautionary principle should apply. Therefore, the new meat alternatives don’t get a plus 1, but they don’t get a minus 1 either. I’ll call it undecided.
With allowance for doubt, precedent, and the follies of history, my dietary advice is to stick with the fundamental truths of eating well: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants; and limit your exposure to both meat and ultraprocessed foods. Alternatives to meat as an ingredient in home food preparation are an option, too, as are artful assemblies of simple, time-honored ingredients.
If you’re reluctant to forswear meat, however, and tempted by its newest incarnations, then my final tally on that topic is a solid 2 out of 3. Perhaps these products are better for your health than some of the meat you’ve been eating, but we aren’t sure. They are certainly kinder and gentler to our fellow creatures overall, and softer on the environment.
As with everything in the food space, that conclusion is much dependent on the question we neglect all too often, and inevitably to our detriment: instead of what? Processed meat alternatives are trading up from processed meat. They are almost certainly trading down from whole plant foods.