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How healthy is plant-based meat for you and the planet?

Plant-based meat alternatives are becoming more and more popular - but what are the pros and cons of producing and eating them?

Meat being cultivated in a lab

Whether you’re a meat eater, vegetarian, or vegan, you’ve undoubtedly seen that plant-based meat alternatives are growing in popularity. Even if you’re not interested in trying them yourself, it’s undeniable that the existence of meat alternatives is making it easier for people to move away from animal products and try a more plant-based diet. 

But what exactly are the options when it comes to plant-based meat, and are some types better than others? Will choosing to go plant-based really positively impact the environment and your health? We aim to answer all these questions about food controversies and more, so read on to discover everything you need to know.

What are plant-based meat alternatives?

Meat alternatives are pretty much what you imagine – substitutes for actual meat products such as burgers, sausages and bacon. Things have progressed so much lately that we even have plant-based alternatives for more complex meats like smoked salmon, shawarma kebab meat, and steaks. 

Their ingredients range quite greatly, depending on how authentic the product is trying to be. For example, it used to be much more common to find veggie burgers made out of a mix of pulses, nuts and vegetables. However, as time has gone on, it is becoming harder to distinguish meat from plant-based alternatives. These more authentic substitutes are often made with ingredients like soy and Mycoprotein.

In our open step, Alternatives to animal-derived proteins, we discuss how some plant-based burgers can even ‘bleed’ at this point. This would potentially be offputting to some vegetarians and vegans, but it does show that substitutes are becoming more accurate.

When and why were vegetarian meat substitutes first created?

Heard of cornflakes? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the creator of cornflakes and many other cereals, John Harvey Kellogg, was also the first creator of a vegetarian meat substitute (he was also a pretty terrible person!). In 1896, he created a peanut-based ‘meat’ called Nuttose, and served it to patients at sanitariums. 

Kellogg created Nuttose, and many other health foods, because he believed that eating vegetable and grain-based foods reduced the risk of health problems. He believed that eating meat made people weaker and more likely to get sick, and was a vegetarian due to this belief.

Although Kellogg can be credited with the first product attempting to imitate meat, there have been several protein alternatives existing for many centuries. Take tofu, for instance. First referenced as early as 965 C.E. in China, tofu has been a common source of protein in Asian cuisine for far longer than plant-based meat alternatives have existed.

However, in this article, we’re largely focusing on the existence and popularity of these more recent plant-based meat alternatives that attempt to replicate the taste and texture of animal products. 

On that subject, meat alternatives really started to kick off from 1967, when British scientists discovered Fusarium venenatum, a high-protein fungus. Quorn used this new ingredient to create mycoprotein and make fake meat in 1994. Mycoprotein is still the primary ingredient in Quorn products today.

Pros of plant-based meat substitutes

We’ll start off by thinking about all the great consequences of more plant-based meat alternatives being widely available. Hopefully, this will tempt you to at least try a few options and see what you think.

Health benefits

There is plenty of evidence that suggests that reducing your meat consumption could be good for your health. Diets that are high in red meat and processed meat, in particular, are associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. By contrast, plant-based diets tend to be low in saturated fat and high in fibre, which is better for digestion, blood sugar levels, and cardiovascular health.

If you need some help planning healthy meals, especially if your diet is restricted in some way, our Preparing Healthy Meals for Dietary Requirements with BBC Good Food ExpertTrack could be a fun course to get stuck into. 

Less animal suffering and deaths

This is a pretty obvious one, but it remains important nonetheless. In our animal welfare blog post, we discuss how animals are sentient beings with the ability to suffer, therefore it should be our duty to protect them from pain and suffering. The meat industry is often cruel to animals, and this is often a primary motive for people switching to plant-based meat alternatives.

More environmentally friendly

In our blog post about whether eating meat is bad for the environment, we discovered that there are several negative consequences worth discussing. The production of meat is linked to deforestation, biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gas emissions, significant water use, and soil degradation. 

You can learn more about this in our Why do we need alternative sources of protein? open step, or go one step further and join our Grand Challenges: Food for Thought course by the University of Exeter and the Eden Project.

But what about plant-based meats? Well, Impossible Foods says its soy-based burger uses 87 percent less water, takes 96 percent less land, and creates 89 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a beef burger. Other meat alternative brands make similar claims, and it seems pretty clear that reducing meat production is a good thing for our planet.

A way of avoiding food insecurity

When we eat farmed animals, we have to grow far more crops than we do when we directly eat food that we grow. This is because farm animals need to consume a lot of food – for example, it takes 25 pounds of grain to yield one pound of beef. By creating more nutritious protein options that don’t rely on animal farming, we are more likely to tackle global food insecurity.

Delicious and widely available

These days, it’s becoming a lot easier to find plant-based meat substitutes in mainstream supermarkets, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. There are, of course, some countries where they’re harder to find, but this is likely to change in the coming years. 

What’s more, plant-based meats are getting tastier as scientists and chefs perfect ingredient combinations and recipes during food processing – learn more about the technologies involved in  our How Food is Made course.

Cons of plant-based meat substitutes

Despite the many great benefits of plant-based meats, it’s not all good news. There are some drawbacks to be aware of when choosing between brands.

High in sodium

Some highly processed plant-based meat products contain more sodium than regular meat – which isn’t great news for our health. Health campaigner, Action on Salt, carried out research and found that 75% of plant-based meat products do not meet the UK government’s salt reduction targets. 

Salt is the major ingredient that raises our blood pressure, and this increases our chances of having a stroke or heart disease. In addition to high sodium, overly processed plant-based meats may contain other ingredients that aren’t the healthiest, such as refined oils or added sugar.

High cost

Plant-based meat products often cost more per serving than regular meat, and this is certainly a deterrent for a lot of people. Oftentimes, this is because it still requires a lot of research and innovation in order to create authentic, tasty substitutes for meat products, so the production process is longer and more expensive. 

However, as demand increases and scientists perfect the taste and quality of plant-based alternatives, prices are almost guaranteed to go down – so hopefully, this problem will go away on its own. A recent report from the Good Food Insitute even projects that vegan meat will become cheaper than beef by 2023.

What is lab-grown meat?

We can’t have a conversation about meat alternatives without talking about lab-grown meat. While not plant-based, lab-grown meat can be created without killing animals, making it enticing for several reasons. 

While meat grown in a lab may sound like a strange and futuristic feat, the first in-vitro burger was actually created in 2013. In our Alternatives to animal-derived proteins open step, experts explain how cultured meat is created. Stem cells are collected from living animals and grown in a nutrient-rich medium where they can develop into muscle tissue in a safe, disease-free way. 

Currently, the standard growth medium for stem cells is foetal-calf serum, which clearly still requires the use of animals, but scientists aim to develop plant-based serums. Not only could lab-grown meat eliminate the need for animal deaths, but it could also allow us to make more healthy meat – i.e, by reducing the amount of saturated fat in beef.

In our open step, we also discuss how lab-grown meat produces fewer greenhouse gases and uses less water compared to farming animals, which is definitely a plus. However, it’ll be a challenge to create sustainable and affordable large-scale production systems for lab-grown meat if it becomes more mainstream. 

Discover more about the future of food production in our Future Food: Sustainable Food Systems for the 21st Century course by the University of Exeter, or learn about the role of tech in our Revolutionising the Food Chain with Technology course by Queen’s University Belfast and EIT Food.

Is lab-grown meat vegetarian or vegan?

It’s pretty safe to say that lab-grown meat is not vegan, as ultimately, it is still recreating an animal product and requires the use of animal cells. Whether it is vegetarian is a slightly more difficult debate, since you’re not technically eating meat that has come from an animal’s body. However, most people agree that it is neither vegan nor vegetarian, as it currently stands.

It’s worth noting, lab-grown meat is not aimed at vegans or vegetarians. Instead, it could be a great way to get omnivores to reduce their carbon footprint and go for a cruelty-free meat option that precisely mimics the real thing. The question is, will meat eaters go for it?

Is lab-grown meat widely available today?

In the second half of 2021, Upside Foods Inc. opened a $50 million meat processing facility in California, where staff cultivate animal cells over two weeks and grow them into chicken breasts and steaks without slaughtering any animals. This is the biggest cultivated meat factory to exist, and they hope to sell lab-grown meat products at some point this year. In other news, Singapore became home to the first restaurant to serve lab-grown meat in late 2020. 

Luckily, cost has dropped dramatically for lab-grown meat. While the first cultivated burger cost $330,000 to produce in 2013, now, some companies are able to produce them for closer to $10. However, recent research suggests that it still costs about $242 per pound of meat produced, which would need to significantly drop in order to be accessible.

Popular plant-based meat companies in the UK

After all this talk of meat alternatives, you might be dying to taste some options and see what you think. While there are so many innovative plant-based meat companies right now, we’re focusing on some of the biggest plant-based meat manufacturers in the UK for this article.

Quorn

Probably the biggest and oldest plant-based meat manufacturer, Quorn is a favourite for many vegans and vegetarians. Created in the 1960s, after Lord Rank and his scientists discovered Fusarium venenatum and turned it into mycoprotein, Quorn is most popular for its mince, chicken pieces, and chicken nugget alternatives.

Beyond Meat

Most famous for their delicious Beyond Burger, this globally successful company was founded in 2009 in Los Angeles. They also create sausages, mince and meatballs, so there are plenty of options to test out. Beyond Meat even worked with the University of Michigan to check their environmental impact. The Beyond Burger uses significantly less water, land, and energy than a beef burger – great news for fans of the company. 

THIS

Known for creating incredibly authentic plant-based meat products, THIS products can be found all over UK supermarket and restaurant chains. One of their unique selling points is that they fortify all their products with vitamin B12 and iron, so if you’re worried about missing out on vitamins and nutrients from real meat, this could be a great option. 

Other plant-based meat manufacturers

  • Vivera
  • Linda McCartney Foods
  • Gardein
  • VBites
  • Tofurky
  • The Vegetarian Butcher
  • Oumph!

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this article has given you some real food for thought (pun intended). While plant-based meat alternatives are not the perfect solution to the world’s problems, they certainly have a chance at reducing our environmental impact, enforcing more sustainable food production, and even making us healthier. 

Whether you’re already a lover of meat alternatives, or you’ve enjoyed learning about them in this article, we hope you consider trying something new during your next weekly shop. Who ever said that our individual actions don’t have any impact?

 

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