It’s cool to be vegan, but are all those meat substitutes really so healthy for the environment and for us? Turkey or tofurkey, vegan schnitzel or beefsteak? Standing in front of a supermarket freezer, it’s up to you whether to choose between conventional or plant-based meat.
From the United States to Europe and farther afield, plant-based meat alternatives are rapidly gaining in popularity. But are those meat substitutes – often produced with additives, wrapped in pretty plastic, and imported from far away – really so sustainable and healthy? Nutritionists voice a word of caution. “With vegan meat, there is more processing, more packaging and likely more sodium,” says Vashti Verbowski, a registered dietitian from the state of Washington.
Meatless meat has been around in various forms for well over a century. John Harvey Kellogg created a peanut-based meatless meat called Nuttose in 1896 before going on to popularize cereal as an alternative breakfast food. In recent years, vegan meat has exploded in popularity, particularly but not only in the U.S. A recent study by the Good Food Institute showed that plant-based food has become an important part of the worldwide food system. There are good reasons for this trend. According to an August 2020 Stanford University study, plant-based meat alternatives reduce cardiovascular risk factors compared with red meat. The rise of vegan alternatives to meat in social settings – like the Beyond Burgers now widely available in restaurants throughout the U.S. – has helped people stick to their eating pattern.
And it’s caught on in other countries, too. In Germany, the rise of plant-based eating has become so popular that consumption of meat in 2020 was lower per head than at any other point since record keeping started in 1989. One possible explanation for the decline in meat consumption is a combined focus on conscious diet and climate protection goals. Germany and France are at about the same level of annual meat consumption with roughly 80 kilos consumed per capita. Considered globally, national differences can be particularly stark, especially when comparing the U.S., at 123 kilos per capita, with India, where annual consumption of meat is just 4 kilos per capita.
Nonetheless, an undeniable wave of change has swept over Germany, not only in eating habits but also in the vegetarian and vegan options available to consumers. Companies offering alternatives to meat products have sprung up over the last couple of years. And even traditional meat producers that are household names, such as Rügenwalder Mühle (founded in 1834), have joined newer market players like Veggyfriends and Like Meat. But as good as these veggie products sound, meat substitutes are far from perfect. Buying and consuming plant-based meat has both environmental and health disadvantages, note even some of the biggest proponents of plant-based nutrition. “I think vegan meat can be a good alternative,” says Verbowski, who dubs herself “The Kitchen Dietitian.” “My only concern is the degree of processing and even more plastic. If you are only buying your own legumes, beans, and lentils, you can potentially have much less plastic waste.”
In Germany, Rügenwalder Mühle sells both meat and vegetarian substitutes, which means that those who buy substitutes inadvertently support the company’s meat production. Many plant-based products seem to be healthy at first glance, but they are not organic. Valess’s products fall into this category. Among the drawbacks of plant-based meat alternatives: transporting soy – an ingredient in plant-based alternatives – across continents increases carbon dioxide emissions and often lack vitamin B12. However, there are solutions to this dilemma. Instead of solely consuming plant-based meat, Ruscigno and Verbowski recommend that people on a plant-based diet stick as much as possible to whole foods. “You want to make sure you get protein from legumes, make sure you’re actually eating fruits and vegetables,” urges Ruscigno.
The future holds promise for meat eaters as well as vegans. For meat eaters looking to eat more sustainably, Swiss company Mirai Foods is researching and developing a method of cultivating beef from animal cells. Through this method, which is still under development, a cow’s stem-cell sample is extracted through biopsy, isolated in liquid nitrogen, and then reproduced by cell division. The reproduced cells develop further as muscles and fats and are finally put together as beef.
The startup aims to produce up to one million tons of beef from just a single sample, and it aspires to offer this lab-grown meat at a fair price. As projects like this gather steam, they will help the development of more advanced and eco-friendly substitutes to farm-raised meat. Ruscigno is confident that vegan meat can allow both Americans and Germans to transition to eating more plant-based foods. “I am optimistic that we can get more people to eat vegan food if it’s presented to them in the right way.”
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