Is Plant-Based Meat Healthier Than Animal Meat?
What Are The Problems With Eating Meat?
Animal advocates are well-versed in the repercussions of using animals for food. In addition to the moral problems of meat consumption, eating too much meat has been shown to cause health conditions like heart disease and cancer. It also raises public health concerns from the overuse of antibiotics and the risk of spreading zoonotic illnesses. Moreover, research has consistently shown that animal-based diets cause more harm to the environment than plant-based diets.
Despite its negative consequences, meat consumption has grown steadily since the 1960s, mostly in developed countries. As a result, we can conclude that food choices are not driven by ethical or environmental impact, but rather by taste, cost, and convenience. It is therefore reasonable to replace animal products with plant-based alternatives, which aim to replicate these key consumer needs while avoiding the harms associated with animal farming.
Plant-Based Substitutes Vs. “Whole Food” Diets
Some argue that plant-based substitutes are worse for our health and the environment compared to a diet of minimally processed foods (e.g., whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds). While striving for a whole food, plant-based diet may be a worthy long-term goal, substitutes are intended to help consumers transition away from eating animals. In other words, they are intended to replace animal products—not whole plant foods. In fact, some research suggests that almost 90% of plant-based substitute consumers are meat-eaters.
This article compared plant-based alternatives to their animal counterparts in terms of human health and environmental sustainability. The author reviewed hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles published after the year 2000 that address these two topics. In the end, 43 studies were included in the review.
Environmental Impacts Of Plant-Based Substitutes
Regarding the environment, the evidence shows that plant-based substitutes are more sustainable than animal products. Specifically, they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other polluting substances, while requiring less land, water, and energy. Furthermore, they can reduce the use of fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides.
One study found that simply incorporating more plant-based alternatives into an omnivorous diet can reduce one’s carbon emissions by up to 583 megatons annually. In other words, there are ways to improve environmental health that work within our current food system.
Another study published in 2021 found that, compared to beef burgers, plant-based burgers were associated with 98% less greenhouse gas emissions, 92% less agricultural land use, and 97% less freshwater eutrophication (an excess of nutrients and plants in a body of water, which ultimately harms marine life). Finally, other research suggests that plant-based meat substitutes produce between 82-87% less climate change per nutrition density unit than conventional beef burgers.
Health Impacts Of Plant-Based Substitutes
In terms of health, research suggests that plant-based alternatives are superior to animal products in many ways. They have favorable nutritional profiles, including more fiber and less fat, saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, cholesterol, and calories. Hence, they perform relatively well for weight loss and building muscle. They can also improve gut health and prevent up to 52,700 premature deaths each year. However, the research suggests that consumers should be conscious of the sugar and salt content in their plant-based products. Reducing meat products also means paying closer attention to one’s iron and protein intake.
By adding vitamins, minerals, and optimizing protein content, plant-based substitutes can further improve their nutritional profiles and digestibility. In this way, they can also be customized to cater to specific health conditions, including those at risk of bone fractures, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. As it stands, studies have found that eating plant-based substitutes and reducing meat intake lowers the risk of hip fractures and insulin release in overweight individuals.
What Do Consumers Think About Plant-Based Substitutes?
Some consumers of animal products view plant-based alternatives as unnatural or heavily processed, and thus unhealthy. This “naturalistic fallacy” —the idea that something natural must be good — is supported by the animal agriculture industry, which has an incentive to cast doubt on its competitors. Instead of arguing against the naturalistic fallacy, it is often more productive for advocates to explain the health benefits of plant-based alternatives, including how processing ingredients can enhance their nutritional profiles.
Plant-based alternatives have come a long way, especially in the last ten years. These products make plant-based diets more accessible by appealing to consumer preferences and behavior, while avoiding the consequences of the animal products that they replace. Continued research and development has the potential to maximize these benefits. Animal advocates should urge consumers and policymakers to listen to the science, which suggests that plant-based substitutes can make our food system work for our health and the planet instead of against it.