In 2021, a survey of over 1,000 Americans found that nearly two-thirds
had eaten plant-based meat alternatives in the past year.
Many cited potential health and environmental benefits
as their motivation.
But are these alternative meats actually better for us and the planet?
First, let’s introduce the contenders.
Meat from butchered animals, which we’ll call farmed meat,
is a complex structure of muscle fibers, connective tissues, and fat.
You may recognize meat from its role in the human diet,
stretching back to our species’ very beginnings.
Our next challenger, the plant-based meat alternative,
may look and taste like meat,
but it’s built with proteins, carbohydrates, fats,
and other molecules from plants.
Transforming plant molecules into something that resembles meat
Meat’s fibrous texture is created by long rod-like proteins.
To replicate this structure,
a plant’s ball-shaped proteins can be pushed through an extruder device
which forces them to unwind and join into long filaments.
To mimic animal fat, companies mix in fats and oils extracted from plants.
One popular brand adds a beet juice pigment
that changes the patty’s color as it cooks.
Another adds an iron-containing molecule called heme,
which their team says is key to its meaty flavor.
The resulting products come in many forms.
Finally, our last entrant: lab-grown meat.
Also known as cell-based meat and cultured meat,
these products begin as animal stem cells
that researchers coax to multiply and form into muscle.
It’s worth noting that lab-grown meats are largely still in development,
so the exact process may change when they’re produced
at greater commercial scale.
So which meat or lookalike is best for your health?
Farmed meat is a vital source of protein and nutrients for many people.
But researchers have also found links between diets
high in red and processed meats
and health concerns like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
One 2012 study concluded that swapping red meat
for other options like chicken, nuts, or legumes for one meal a day
can potentially reduce mortality risk by 7 to 19%.
There is not enough data to know whether replacing red meat
with a plant-based patty would have the same effect.
Plant-based meats, while containing just as much protein, calories, and iron
as farmed meat,
are highly processed and, therefore, high in sodium.
And many contain coconut oil, which has a lot of saturated fat,
and, like red meat, may elevate heart disease risk.
Lab-grown meat, meanwhile,
has the potential to offer the same nutritional qualities and health risks
as farmed meat.
But we won’t know for sure until product development is further along.
So which contender is better for the environment?
Animal agriculture generates an estimated 14.5%
of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers estimate that producing plant-based meat substitutes
results in, on average, around 90% less greenhouse gas emissions
than an equivalent amount of beef,
63% less than pork, and 51% less than poultry.
Plant-based meat alternatives also tend to require far less land and water
than farmed meat.
And their production results in much lower levels of pollutants running off farms
and entering waterways—
which threaten both the environment and public health.
As for lab-grown meat,
today the industry largely takes its stem cells
from the muscle tissue of livestock.
But how many animals will be required for these biopsies
once production scales up?
It also isn’t clear to what degree alternative meats
will reduce the environmental impact of the farmed meats industry.
What if, instead of replacing meat with alternatives,
people continue to consume the same amount of farmed meat
while also eating newer options?
While the verdict is still out on which meat is nutritionally superior,
if you care about your personal impact on animal welfare,
public health, and the environment,
plant-based meat tends to come out on top.
And switching to meat alternatives doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision.
In fact, a 2022 study estimated that forgoing red meat at just one meal a day
can decrease your personal dietary carbon emissions by as much as 48%.