Words by Ellie Thorson with art by Samantha Hambleton
Having gained mainstream acceptance, popular fast-food menus like McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell now all offer alternatives to traditional meats and poultry — plant-based food and drink options are more available than ever before. Current trends aimed at improving one’s personal environmental impact and health, coupled with COVID-19 meat shortages, have led to a 17% projected growth of meat alternatives in the global market. Though it is not the long-standing tofu or black bean burger that has been leading the charge, but rather brands like Beyond, Impossible, and Quorn that champion the industry of plant-based alternatives by crafting their products to mimic the real thing. The expansion of plant-based alternatives may be seen as revolutionary by many environmentalists or those looking to improve their health, the environment, or animal welfare. In fact, One Poll Study noted that 68% of participants said they would be willing to swap meat for a plant-based alternative if it tasted the same as meat. Though these alternative meat options present as an all-around win for environmentalists and consumers, the darker side of these products, such as health risks, environmental degradation, and capitalistic gain, warrants a deeper dive and perspective.
So, are beef-looking crumbles, fake chicken strips and breakfast sausages, and burger alternatives actually a better nutritional choice? As noted by Kate Geagan, RD, sustainable food expert and author, a great debate of “whether these highly processed plant-based meats fall under the ‘processed foods’ category (associated with negative health outcomes) or the ‘plant foods’ category (which are associated with superior health outcomes),” has arose. While these products may be a step for combating climate change and animal suffering, mainstream brands are often highly processed. Containing a base ingredient that is a plant, like soy, peas, and/or meat, in most cases, these plant are stripped down to low-fiber, high-protein colorless powders that are combined with high levels of sodium, saturated fat, sugars, hydrogenated oils, and other controversial filler and bulking agents, like carrageenan and methylcellulose, to mimic the texture and flavor of real meat, ultimately removing any plant nutrition. The processed nature of these products can pose health risks, especially those with certain health conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.
As climate change has become the forefront of global issues, consumers have become increasingly conscious of their everyday choices. While some may view plant-based alternatives as the all-around win for everyday environmental actions, manufactured plant-based alternatives have their drawbacks. Even though animal welfare is spared during production, soy and GMO soy is often the primary ingredient plant-based alternative, and industrially produced soy displaces and disrupts rich ecosystems such as the American Midwest and the Amazon Rainforest. With soy and GMO soy often being the primary ingredient of plant-based alternatives, it is clear that the environment is disrupted.
Additionally, while Impossible Burgers claim that their burgers use 96% less land, produce 89% lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduces aquatic pollution by 92%, and use 87% less water, it should be noted that much of conducted research has been carried out by private companies with specific agendas, and questionable metrics have been utilized in order to construct certain results. With this being said, Marco Springmann, a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Program on the Food of Food, remarks that although the creation plant-based alternatives do not compare to red meat, they do “produce the same number of emissions as poultry and five times the emissions of vegetables and legumes.”
It also cannot go without being said that this conversation on plant-based alternatives is a privilege — these options often come at a steep price and are largely inaccessible compared to the standard burger or vegetable. Plant-based alternatives are a very niche product of interest to rich countries; low- and middle-income countries cannot afford to eat beef as it is at the apex of the nutrition transition. According to “Bennett`s Law,” low- and middle-income countries will shift their consumption from foods high in carbohydrates but low in protein for protein dense foods (animal products) as income rises. For high- income countries, where consuming high-protein foods is a norm, health and ethical motivations to eat less meat have arisen.
Rather, plant-based alternatives have arguably become a point of capitalistic gain that only people in a place of security and privilege are able to consider, greenwashed by biased research and proclamations of wins for the environment and health.
Even though plant-based alternatives now may now appear as an all-around triumph for our health and the environment, drawbacks such as environmental degradation, genuine climate change impact, and health risks should be noted. However, these conscious actions for a better, more sustainable future should not be abandoned. Choosing a plant-based alternative centered around whole ingredients, like beans, vegetables and grains, can do wonders for your health and the planet.
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