Technology Brings Ever-Closer Substitutes for Meat by Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
In most of the developed world, the consumption of meat and other animal products typically exceeds the recommendations from experts in the health and environmental sustainability fields. Barring some exceptions for specific dietary requirements, most people in the global North would stand to improve their health and lessen their impact on the environment by reducing—although not necessarily removing—animal products. As a registered dietitian, I know the importance of educating consumers about new products on the market to help them make informed decisions about how to eat in line with their values, particularly given the massive confusion created by food advertisements, nutrition labels and social media.
Alternative Meats While vegetarian proteins like tofu and tempeh have been dietary staples for thousands of years, plant-based versions of meat (like veggie burgers) have been popular only in recent decades. During this time, overall meat intake in the US has remained roughly flat, just above 200 pounds per person per year (see figure above). Following years of extensive research and development, new versions of plant-based meats that more closely approximate the taste and texture of meat are the latest trend for consumers seeking a plant-based protein that requires no animal slaughter. The most popular alternative meat is a substitute “ground beef,” which has been easier to commercialize because it is simpler to approximate in a lab than a continuous piece of flesh (like steak or a chicken thigh). The dominant alternative meat companies currently on the market, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are backed by large investors and prominent celebrities. A few companies have also come to market with plant-based seafood products. Beyond Meat’s products are available in a rapidly growing number of restaurants and grocery chains and they earned $88 million in 2018 (although they have yet to yield a profit). Impossible Burgers and Sausage products were rolled out to grocery stores in September 2019. Its products are found in thousands of restaurants in the US and Asia, including Burger King. Data collected by Nielsen show that sales of plant-based meats grew by 24% in 2018 to almost $700 million. They now account for about 1% of total meat sales and are sold in 95% of grocery stores. Almost 12% of households purchase them and sales are growing in every region of the country. Companies like Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Finless Foods are close to bringing cultured (or cell-based) meats and seafood to the marketplace and have received investments from businessmen, such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates, as well as meat companies themselves. Some meat producers, such as Tyson (our country’s largest meat producer), are developing their own lines of cell-based meats. To produce these “meats,” stem cells must first be extracted from animal tissue. They form fibers that are modified and given additives that help to approximate the familiar taste and texture for consumers before packaging and sending to distributors. As of 2019, the FDA and USDA are still developing a regulatory framework for these products. How does the nutrition compare? Here are nutrition labels and ingredient lists for an Impossible Burger and a four-ounce beef burger. While most of the macronutrient content is similar, note that the sodium content is much lower in the beef burger. The Impossible Burger also contains a small amount of carbohydrates.
How does the environmental footprint compare? Proponents claim that plant-based meats have much smaller environmental footprints than flesh-based meats. Impossible Foods’ lifecycle assessment claims that production of its Impossible Burger accounts for 13% of the carbon dioxide, 25% of the water usage and 5% of the land usage of a beef burger. When comparing cultured meats (such as Memphis Meats) to beef, on the other hand, a recent study from Oxford University suggested one does not consistently have a smaller environmental footprint because the calculations vary widely depending on the means of the energy production used in culturing and the cattle production systems. Plant-based meats help consumers to avoid antibiotics and hormones in their food. While sales of organic foods (including about 3% of meat and fish) have more than doubled over the past decade, organic versions of these new plant-based meats are not yet available, so their ingredients are grown conventionally. Impossible Foods products include genetically modified ingredients, so consumers wishing to avoid those may prefer different brands. A recent study by the nonprofit coalition Moms Across America measured residue of glyphosate, a harmful herbicide applied to GMO soy plants, to be 11 times higher in Impossible Foods’ meats than in Beyond Meat’s meats (which does not include GMO ingredients).
How does the taste compare? Given their rapid rise in popularity, these products are clearly appealing to the American palate. Scientists have worked exhaustively to approximate the texture and taste of animal flesh so that these new products appeal to meat-eaters and vegans alike. The Beyond Burger (from Beyond Meat) uses beet juice to replicate the appearance of real meat, and Impossible Foods’ meats use leghemoglobin, which yields the heme that gives beef a characteristic flavor and color and actually appears to bleed when cut. These plant-based meat products are intentionally sold in the meat section of grocery stores, making them accessible to current meat-eaters, in addition to vegans. A recent article in Food and Wine magazine described a taste test among its staff and demonstrated the widespread appeal and close replication of the two predominant alternative hamburger products.
Are there human health benefits of animal-based meats? Consuming small portions of seafood, livestock, poultry, eggs and wild game (such as rabbit or boar) can offer benefits that are difficult to come by on a fully plant-based diet. Fatty fish—such as sardines, mackerel and salmon—are the best dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential nutrients critical for brain health and reducing inflammation. They also provide vitamin D, which is nearly impossible to consume adequately through the diet (without drinking multiple servings of fortified milk every day). Small, bony fish can also serve as a good source of calcium, which is important for maintaining strong bones. These foods can also supply B vitamins, zinc, iron and protein in greater quantities than are readily available in exclusively plant-based foods. Sustainable forms of animal agriculture, such as biodynamic or regenerative systems, yield benefits to the surrounding environment and human health, as well.
How do these foods fit into my diet?
If you are interested in purchasing alternative meats, be a conscious consumer and read the ingredients list and nutrition label to avoid preservatives and other unrecognizable ingredients, problematic oils like palm oil and high salt content (more than several hundred grams per serving).
If you struggle with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms or other digestive disorders, avoid products that contain emulsifiers (like guar gum, xanthan gum and polyglycerols), as those may exacerbate your conditions. If the meat contains isolated soy protein, this may also cause digestive issues because it is not fermented.
If you have or are at risk for a heart condition, keep an eye on the saturated fat content of these products. One serving can provide eight grams (mostly from coconut oil), which is almost half of the daily allotment recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
When possible, choose the options that come in the least disposable packaging and do not heat in plastic.
If you choose to eliminate animal source foods from your diet, consider talking with a dietitian to ensure your diet contains adequate sources of nutrients like zinc, calcium, vitamin B12 and iron.
If you consume animal-source foods, consider reducing your serving size to a three- or four-ounce serving (such as two eggs or meat the size of your palm) per day or even several times per week. This serving size is typically less than what is served in restaurants and pushes it to the side of the plate, allowing fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains to take center stage (see this post for recommendations).
Whether or not you consume animal-source foods, try to maintain variety in your diet to ensure you get all of the nutrients your body needs.
Beyond Meat. Accessed May 13, 2019. www.beyondmeat.com/where-to-find/
Good Food Institute. Plant-Based Market Overview. Accessed May 11, 2019. www.gfi.org/marketresearch
Hallinan B. “Plant-Based Burger Taste Test: We Tried Four Vegan 'Meat' Brands Ahead of Grilling Season. “Food and Wine. Updated April 17, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2019. www.foodandwine.com/news/plant-based-burger-taste-test
Impossible Foods. “Sustainability Is Our Main Ingredient: 2017 Sustainability Report.” 2017. www.ift.org/~/media/Food%20Technology/Weekly/IF_SustainabilityReport2017.pdf
Honeycutt Z. "GMO Impossible Burger Positive For Carcinogenic Glyphosate." Moms Across America. Published May 16, 2019. www.momsacrossamerica.com/gmo_impossible_burger_positive_for_carcinogenic_glyphosate
Lynch J and Pierrehumbert R. Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 2019; 3:5.
Organic Trade Association. Published May 18, 2018. Accessed May 11, 2019. “Maturing U.S. organic sector sees steady growth of 6.4 percent in 2017.” ota.com/news/press-releases/20236
Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD
Christina is a registered dietitian and author who aims to improve access to healthy and sustainable food and educate Americans about the connections between food and health. She loves to experiment with healthy recipes in the kitchen and share her creations to inspire others to cook.
Christina completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital and earned her Master of Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Previously, she graduated with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Princeton University, after conducting her thesis on sustainable agriculture and energy in Kenya. She has done clinical nutrition research at the National Institutes of Health, menu planning and nutrition education at the Oakland Unified School District and communications at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water. She has also enjoyed contributing to children’s gardens, farmers markets and a number of organic farms.
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