What Is Plant Based Meat & Is It Sustainable?

plant based meat

What’s the deal with plant based meat?

Alternative meat companies are stuffing the grocery aisles with all kinds of plant based products – but how do they compare to the real thing?

Like most vegan related industries, the plant based meat scene is a little bit confusing to explore.

A lot of the confusion has to do with outdated nutritional guidelines and lobbying from the meat industry itself, as well as a general shift in global culture the past decade.

Let’s take a look at the details surrounding vegan meat products.

What is plant based meat?

Simply put, plant based meat is any sort of vegan or vegetarian meat product that doesn’t actually contain any meat. Because of how vague food labeling regulations can be, these products often contain dairy or eggs – but are nearly always meat-free.

What is plant based meat made of?

Varying brand by brand, the most common plant based meat ingredients are plants or fungi high in protein. After all, the point of eating meat for most people is a healthy, protein-rich meal. With too many brands and individual products to cover, here are some of the most common ingredients found in veggie meat:

  • Soybeans
  • Kidney beans and black beans
  • Peas, chickpeas, lentils, and wheat
  • Mushrooms and jackfruit

These types of ingredients hold together all kinds of different products you’ll find in the vegan section of your local grocery store, ranging from burgers to sausage patties and chicken nuggies.

A Beyond Meat burger plated and ready to eat.
Image by Marco Verch via Flickr

Combined with all sorts of other delicious things – including highly processed ingredients – many of these products now taste eerily similar to whatever they’re trying to mimic.

Is plant based meat better for the environment?

Currently, animal agriculture (meat specifically) takes an enormous toll on our planet’s most important natural environments. The reasons why meat is bad for the environment are worth reading about, but here is a quick summary:

Regardless of these issues, it seems like much of the world hasn’t gotten the memo; meat consumption continues to grow, scarring our planet where it matters most:

A map showing tree-cover loss in the Amazon rainforest due to cattle grazing.
Image by Bartz/Stockmar via Flickr

Crops like soy and kidney beans on the other hand, require much less water, land, and infrastructure to manage and grow. Plant based versions of meat and animal products have lower environmental impacts and even some socioeconomic benefits as well, which we’ll talk about shortly.

Soybeans used to make plant based meat growing in Alabama, USA.

This is relevant even if you aren’t someone who wants to learn how to go vegan. Every time you buy meat made from plants, you reduce your carbon footprint – collectively, these things are more important than they seem.

Are plant based meats healthy?

Not only is the alternative meat industry better for the environment – meatless meat is better for your health, too.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared red and processed meats carcinogenic nearly a decade ago, linking their regular consumption with serious ailments like bowel cancer and heart disease. Most popular meat products fall under these categories nowadays, and in general animal products are highly processed.

That isn’t to say that vegan meat or dairy products aren’t processed – they definitely can be and nobody is advising they be eaten for every single meal. The fact remains, however, that plant based ingredients are healthier and more sustainable than animal products.

If you don’t care about the health aspects of this discussion, that’s fine – but for those who do, superior nutritional profiles and lower risk of disease are just added benefits on top of shrinking ecological impacts. Meat production even encourages the spread of antibiotic resistance bacteria due to rampant overuse of medications within animal agriculture – a serious looming health crisis.

Is big meat afraid of meatless brands?

Unsurprisingly, the animal agriculture industry really doesn’t like plant based meat. Maybe you’ve noticed recent sensationalist news stories covering the Beyond Meat controversy? Or lawsuits filed by competitor brands specializing in frozen plant based meat meals?

A package of Beyond Beef ready to be purchased.

Mainstream media outlets taking advantage of these kinds of events is nothing new. But the intentional use of terms like “fake meat brands” in articles discussing Beyond Meat products conjures up images of rubbery, alien meats – a far cry from the real thing, something that no real person could enjoy.

The reality is, livestock lobbying groups already spend millions per year to promote meat and dairy products, and harm the progress of novel products like plant based beef. When big meat feels threatened, they spend more money lobbying.

USDA employees examining and grading slaughtered turkeys.

These kinds of lobbying groups have even been known to influence dietary guidelines in places like the United States through funding and donations, intentionally creating confusion amongst the scientific community and the public when it comes to the negative health effects of regular meat consumption.

With the goal of discouraging customers and investors from supporting plant based brands, the meat industry doesn’t play by the rules. It’s no coincidence that some of the talking points of climate change deniers include language dismissing the concerns of those looking for meat alternatives – that’s who these lobbyists are working alongside.

Is plant based meat just a fad?

Things take time to catch on – one interesting way of looking at the so-called fad of plant based meats is by considering the Gartner hype cycle, a pattern that depicts how some emerging technologies mature.

Check this out:

A version of the Gartner hype cycle based on plant based meat.
Image by Jeremykemp via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the claims based on the overvaluation of brands like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods assume that the entire global plant based meat industry revolves around two brands alone, which isn’t a very fair analysis.

The price of meat, dairy, and eggs have all risen dramatically in recent years – industries that want you to think only a tiny, niche group of weirdo vegans are eating meat alternatives. The truth is, most people who purchase plant based meat are also meat eaters in most areas of the world.

Widespread acceptance of these products is growing, but it’s a tough sell to those presented with a lifetime of misinformation surrounding meat. Those with higher income or education levels tend to be more accepting of plant based meat options, which isn’t surprising, as those groups of individuals tend to have more time to do their own research.

The explosion in plant based formulas for virtually every food product, at least in places like the US, is a promising sign for the future. More niche ideas like eating bugs and lab grown meat are starting to gain traction around the world as well, and even plant base seafood brands are entering the scene – a potential solution to rampant overfishing.

Final thoughts

Plant based meat products are taking the world by storm, but the road to widespread acceptance of meatless food brands has been a bit of a struggle.

New and exciting food technologies are set to revolutionize the way we think about what we eat – and plant based meat is just one part of the conversation.

Do you have any hot takes when it comes to meat made out of plants?

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