Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?

Vegetarians and vegans in the US can now enjoy more options than side salads and tofu, whether at summer barbecues, fast-food restaurants, or grocery stores. Sausages, hamburgers, and other types of meat made entirely of plant-based ingredients are becoming commonly available across the country.

Many of the latest plant-based meats so closely resemble conventional meat in their taste, appearance, and texture that they fit easily into the diets of omnivores—not just vegetarians and vegans. These products are not novelties but instead are making a significant difference to human health and the environment.

WHAT IS PLANT-BASED MEAT?

Plant-based meat refers to products that mimic animal flesh—and processed foods traditionally made from animal flesh—but that are created using only ingredients sourced from plants.

While these products can be enjoyed by those who choose to abstain from meat or animal products altogether, many of today’s plant-based meats are primarily being marketed to omnivores, who constitute the majority of the US consumers. A 2020 Gallup poll found that over 40% of US consumers had tried plant-based meats, and more than half of those consumers planned to continue eating plant-based products in the future.

Expanding the reach of plant-based meat beyond consumers who identify as vegetarian or vegan and successfully capturing the interest of omnivores and casual meat-reducers could create a much more significant reduction in overall societal meat consumption than only marketing to vegetarians and vegans. Lowering average meat consumption across all consumer groups is particularly important in wealthier nations like the United States, which currently leads the world in yearly total meat consumed per person.

Infographic: The Countries That Eat The Most Meat | Statista

Drivers of the Plant-based Meat Industry

The roots of plant-based meat development and the drive for societal meat reduction are manifold. Many producers and consumers of plant- based meats articulate combinations of motivations related to public health, animal welfare, social justice, and environmental protection.

Public health motivations include the search for solutions for the high burden of diet-related chronic disease. For example, cardiovascular risk has long been linked to the overconsumption of animal-based foods,[1] and controlled trials have shown that switching to plant-based meats can improve cardiovascular health.[2]

Motivations related to justice and compassion center on the harm inflicted on animals, people, and farming communities by animal-based meat production. Animal welfare motivations include the immense and unnecessary suffering that billions of animals undergo each year in US Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), from chickens caged for egg production to cows separated from their young at birth by the dairy industry. Related social justice concerns center on the exploitative and physically dangerous conditions that characterize work in US meat processing facilities and the negative impacts that industrial food production—particularly animal farming—have had on agricultural communities.

Environmental motivations focus on the severe ecological damage caused by industrial meat production. Globally, the meat industry accounts for a significant percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions, is a primary driver of deforestation, requires vast amounts of land, and causes immense land and water pollution. Compared to animal-based meat, plant-based meat requires far less land to produce and is significantly less polluting to the environment.[3] Especially where producers use renewable energy resources and plastic-free packaging, plant-based meat production can have far fewer impacts on the environment.

TYPES OF PLANT-BASED MEAT

There are two basic categories of plant-based meats: restructured and whole muscle. 

Restructured plant-based meats include emulsion-type products such as hotdogs and bologna modeled after highly processed animal-meat products, as well as burgers, patties, and nuggets that mimic ground animal flesh.

The goal of whole-muscle plant-based meats, on the other hand, is to achieve the look, feel, and taste of complete cuts of animal-based meat like a steak or chicken breast. In these instances, cartilage, striations in the muscle tissue, and other structural features of animal muscle are integral to the taste experience of animal meats and present a challenge for plant-based meat developers.[4]

Plant-based meat companies produce alternatives for the most popular types of meat within their distribution region to gain access to the largest potential markets. The more people these products can reach, the more plant-based entrepreneurs will be able to do to lessen the social and environmental burdens arising from meat consumption.

Plant-based meat products are becoming increasingly popular in the US and are being pitched as replacements for the flesh of a range of animals:

  • Cattle. Beef is one of the most recognizably all-American foods, used in meals like hamburgers and steak dinners. Unsurprisingly, plant-based hamburger patties have found a ready market. 
  • Chickens. Chicken is another mainstay of American diets, which plant-based food companies have answered by creating plant-based chicken strips, chicken nuggets, and burger patties.
  • Marine animals. Plant-based seafood has yet to become a common sight on US grocery store shelves, but companies are working to develop and popularize new offerings of plant-based salmon, shrimp, and tuna.

Although the plant-based meat sector as a whole is experiencing substantial growth and record investments, there are a number of challenges companies must overcome. One of the biggest hurdles is achieving price parity with conventional meat products, which is crucial for gaining widespread market adoption. Improving taste is another challenge that companies are working to address, along with creating authentic textures—particularly that of whole-muscle products.[5]

WHAT IS PLANT-BASED MEAT MADE OF?

The stems, leaves, and roots of plants may appear to possess few similarities with the bodies of the animals that people regularly consume. Yet many of the key nutrients present in animal flesh that make up its nutritional profile and create its taste, texture, and appearance are also present in plants. These include vitamins, minerals, fat, and protein. Plant-based meat companies create meat analogs by combining plant ingredients and rearranging their nutritional building blocks into products with the look, feel, and—increasingly—the taste of meat.

Legumes such as peas and soy, and grains like rice and wheat, are currently the most popular choices of basic ingredients in the plant-based meat industry due to their high protein content. However, producers are exploring new formulations containing crops such as millet, which may be more efficient at delivering protein. The first iterations of plant-based meat production exploited “side streams” from established food supply chains, for example, making use of soy proteins left over from oil production. But as the plant-based meat space grows, it is increasingly developing its own dedicated supply chains, with the power to restructure agricultural economies.[6]

Products can contain a range of ingredients depending on the sort of look, feel, and taste they aim to achieve. Companies can also use proprietary blends of spices and other ingredients to make their products unique. Below are a few of the basic ingredients of both restructured and whole-muscle plant-based meats.

RESTRUCTURED PLANT-BASED MEATS

Restructured plant-based products mimic the texture and appearance of conventional emulsion meats like hotdogs and mortadella, or ground meats like hamburgers and chicken nuggets.

  • Emulsion-type products use soy, potato, and pea protein, as well as gluten, blended with binders like soy protein isolate and methylcellulose, along with oils, colorants, and spices.
  • Textured vegetable protein (also known as TVP) is a common ingredient in patties and nuggets. Binders such as egg protein and polysaccharides may also be used, along with fats such as sunflower, canola, coconut, or palm oils. Ingredients like beet juice can also be used to give plant-based burgers the appearance of “bleeding.”

WHOLE MUSCLE PLANT-BASED MEATS

Soy protein is the most popular ingredient when creating products that mimic animal muscle, whether used in concentrated or isolated form. Formulations typically rely on liquid oils (such as sunflower oil) and rarely require binders. As with restructured products, various colorants and flavorings are commonly added to evoke the taste of meat.[7] As part of a healthy diet, plant-based meats should be consumed in moderation, along with a varied and balanced array of whole plant foods.

IS PLANT-BASED MEAT HEALTHY?

Despite being processed food products, plant-based meats can form part of a healthy, balanced diet comprising primarily whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Some plant-based meats are fortified with plant sources of essential nutrients such as B12 and have a protein content similar to animal-based meat.[8] Plant-based meats are also notable because they lack animal fats, cholesterol, and other characteristics of red meats and processed meats that can be dangerous to human health, especially when consumed in high amounts. Plant-based meats are overall safe to consume and possess some important health benefits compared to meat, when consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet. 

PLANT-BASED MEAT VERSUS REGULAR MEAT

Humans are capable of digesting a range of foods but can attain optimal health on primarily or entirely plant-based diets. Individual constitutions vary, however, and some people may be naturally more biologically suited to plant-based diets than others.[9] Especially compared to the standard American diet, plant-based diets rich in whole plant foods tend to be beneficially high in fiber and critical nutrients such as vitamins C and E, along with magnesium, folate, thiamin, and potassium.

While there are certain nutrients that occur principally in animal products, such as vitamins B12  and D, science has demonstrated that people cannot be strictly carnivorous while maintaining optimal health.[10] Furthermore, findings suggest that even an omnivorous diet abundant in meat and animal products can raise the risk of significant health problems.[11] These same diet-related health problems are increasingly widespread in higher-income countries like the US, where meat products feature heavily in daily consumption patterns.[12] For people suffering from health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary heart disease, reducing meat consumption with the help of plant-based meat substitutes may provide health benefits.  

Compared to conventional meat, plant-based meat may also improve human health because its production facilities are far less polluting than the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that produce the vast majority of US meat. CAFOs cause significant air, land, and water pollution that directly impacts surrounding communities and the broader ecosystems upon which all humans depend. Plant-based products avoid many of the environmental impacts of industrial animal agriculture and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.[13]

PLANT-BASED MEAT BRANDS AND COMPANIES

The number of plant-based meat companies has been growing rapidly in recent years as scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs seek to take advantage of the multibillion-dollar market for alternatives to meat. Below are some of the biggest companies currently defining the field:

  • Beyond Meat’s ever-expanding range of plant-based meat products has become a mainstay in many grocery stores, restaurants, and national fast-food restaurants.
  • Impossible Food’s burger that famously “bleeds” due to novel plant-based heme has become well-known within the US.
  • Quorn’s plant-based meat products have been around since the 1980s, using ingredients based on mushroom protein. Although some of Quorn’s best-known products also contain egg or cheese, many of their offerings are fully plant-based.

CONCLUSION

Growing public interest in plant-based meat indicates the alternative meat sector is here to stay, with the potential to play a role in reducing both the negative public health risks and the serious environmental impacts associated with conventional meat production. A world in which the majority of burgers, sausages, meatballs, and fish fillets come from plant sources rather than from animals will likely be both healthier and far more environmentally sustainable.


[1] Timothy J. Key, Gwyneth K. Davey, and Paul N. Appleby, “Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58, no. 2 (1999): 271–75, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665199000373.

[2] Anthony Crimarco et al., “A Randomized Crossover Trial on the Effect of Plant-Based Compared with Animal-Based Meat on Trimethylamine-N-Oxide and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Generally Healthy Adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT),” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 112, no. 5 (2020): 1188–99, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa203.

[3] Natalie R. Rubio, Ning Xiang, and David L. Kaplan, “Plant-Based and Cell-Based Approaches to Meat Production,” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (December 8, 2020): 6276, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-20061-y.

[4] Konstantina Kyriakopoulou, Julia K. Keppler, and Atze Jan van der Goot, “Functionality of Ingredients and Additives in Plant-Based Meat Analogues,” Food 10, no. 3 (March 2021), https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10030600.

[5] Kyle Gaan, “2020 State of the Industry Report: Plant-Based Meat, Eggs, and Dairy” (Good Food Institute, 2021), https://gfi.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/COR-SOTIR-Plant-based-meat-eggs-and-dairy-2021-0504-1.pdf.

[6] Gaan, “2020 State of the Industry Report: Plant-Based Meat,” https://gfi.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/COR-SOTIR-Plant-based-meat-eggs-and-dairy-2021-0504-1.pdf.

[7] Kyriakopolou, Keppler, and van der Goot, “Functionality of Ingredients,” https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10030600.

[8] Felicity Curtain and Sara Grafenauer, “Plant-Based Meat Substitutes in the Flexitarian Age: An Audit of Products on Supermarket Shelves,” Nutrients 11, no. 11 (October 2019): 2603, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112603.

[9] Stephan van Vliet, Nicholas A. Burd, and Luc J. C. van Loon, “The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- Versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption, The Journal of Nutrition 145, no. 9 (September 2015): 1981–1991, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.204305.

[10] Walter S. McLellan and Eugene F. Du Bois, “Clinical Calorimetry XLV: Prolonged Meat Diets with a Study of Kidney Function and Ketosis,” Journal of Biological Chemistry 87, no. 3 (July 1930): 651–668, https://www.jbc.org/article/S0021-9258(18)76842-7/pdf.

[11] Michael A Clark et al., “Multiple Health and Environmental Impacts of Foods,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 46 (November 12, 2019): 23357–62, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906908116.

[12] Evelyne Battaglia Richi et al., “Health Risks Associated with Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies,”  International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 85, no. 1–2 (December 2015): 70–78, https://doi.org/10.1024/0300-9831/a000224.

[13] Andreas Detzel et al., “Life Cycle Assessment of Animal-Based Foods and Plant-Based Protein-Rich Alternatives: An Environmental Perspective,” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1002/jsfa.11417.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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