Like Meat?

By Sunaya Mueller, Yamuna Sieber, and Lara Frey

Pho­to Cred­it: The Veg­an Burg­er: vaaseenaa/Getty Images

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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Lara Marie Char­lotte Frey is a 16-year-old teen jour­nal­ist from Ham­burg. She suc­cess­ful­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in var­i­ous media work­shops and has been mem­ber of a school news­pa­per. Lara plays sev­er­al instru­ments and enjoys cook­ing. More­over, she’s par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in a healthy and sus­tain­able lifestyle.

Sunaya Das­Gup­ta Mueller is a 17-year-old teen jour­nal­ist from New York. She has pre­vi­ous­ly been pub­lished in Teen Vogue, Ms. Mag­a­zine as well as The 74 and Mid-Hud­son News. Sunaya is the edi­tor-in-chief of her school news­pa­per and an edi­tor of her school’s for­eign lan­guage mag­a­zine. She enjoys trav­el­ing, danc­ing, and play­ing clas­si­cal guitar.

Yamu­na Sieber (18) lives in Ham­burg and hopes to trav­el the world after grad­u­at­ing high school. Apart from trav­el­ing, she loves act­ing, sports, read­ing and writ­ing. She reg­u­lar­ly wrote arti­cles for her school’s web­site and recent­ly dis­cov­ered the fun of writ­ing short fan­ta­sy novels.