Is fake meat a healthy alternative to real meat?

I do not like the terms ‘fake’ and ‘real,’ but they are terms that seem to capture people’s attention these days. There are many products on the market today that are meat substitutes—plant-based, clean, cultured. There are many people advocating avoiding animal products for nutritional, moral, animal welfare, environmental and other reasons.

We are told that we need to make major changes in our lifestyles to save the planet and that avoiding animal products is the most important thing that we can do to avert climate change. If so, we have three options:

  1. Become a vegan,
  2. Dramatically reduce animal products in the diet, or
  3. Replace animal products with processed substitutes.

Refraining from all animal-based items is seen as a common good—good for our health and good for the health of the planet. And yet, we are seeing major pushback against meat alternatives because such products are considered to be ultra-processed. Which way should we go?

poster outside Burger King highlighting their Impossible Whopper
Plant-based, fast food burger

The nutritional case against animal products focuses on overconsumption of fats, particularly saturated fats but also too much cholesterol. Saturated fat is still considered a negative component of our diets, but dietary cholesterol does not appear to play a significant role in cholesterol levels in our blood. Dairy, eggs and meat are good sources of high-quality protein and are rich in essential minerals and vitamins. Most Americans, myself included, could probably benefit from reducing our meat consumption but eliminating all animal products from the diet may not be the healthiest option available. Young, rapidly growing children should probably consume some animal protein to promote growth.

The most powerful argument against eating meat is the moral dilemma of breeding and raising sentient animals for slaughter. Similar arguments apply to dairy and egg production from an animal-welfare perspective. Many people become vegans or vegetarians on this basis alone. The environmental argument against animal agriculture revolves around greenhouse gas emissions, growing crops for animals on land that could be used to grow crops for humans, and disposal of animal waste. Organic production of fresh fruits and vegetables, however, is not necessarily animal free with much of it relying on animal manure, bones and blood for fertilization.

If eating meat is such a problem, why are we seeing such opposition to plant-based meat alternatives? One set of objections is coming from those with a vested interest in selling meat—livestock farmers and ranchers as well as meat companies. The other major critics are those against ultra-processed food products. The campaign against these alternative meats is based on the numerous studies that have linked consumption of  ultra-processed foods to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, weight gain, and other health concerns. The meat industry has found the ultra-processed concept a convenient one to push.

The problem with the ultra-processed food argument is that the category is so broad that it encompasses many foods most consumers would not consider to be ultra-processed. Critics of these products point out that they are high in sugar and/or salt. It is true that processed foods high in sugar or salt qualify as ultra-processed, but homemade foods equally high in sugar or salt do not. Many so-called, ultra-processed foods are not high in sugar or salt. Earlier definitions classified any packaged food with five or more ingredients as ultra-processed. When criticized by food scientists as an unscientific way to classify foods, a stated number of ingredients was dropped but the types of foods considered to be ultra-processed generally remained the same.

Impossible Whopper meal without the bun from Burger King.
Is this gluten-free, plant based burger healthier and better for the environment than one made from real meat?

The focus of this designation on ingredients rather than processing suggests that the true concern is formulation and that the true target is the removal of all food additives from packaged foods, particularly additives with chemical-sounding names. The irony of the campaign against these alternative meat products is that very few were available or consumed at the time the database used for these health studies was compiled. There is no evidence as such to tie plant-based meats to the health problems mentioned in the ultra-processed food studies.  A possible health outcome is that consumers who shift from an animal-based diet to one that incorporates plant-based alternatives will become less likely to develop the chronic diseases associated with a typical American diet.

Bottom line. If meat animals are so bad for the environment and the numbers of farm animals need to be greatly reduced, does that mean that most meat eaters must become vegans? Are meat alternatives off the table? It is doubtful that enough meat eaters will convert to veganism in the country or around the world to make a significant difference in slowing global climate change. Positions are becoming so entrenched that there seem to be no viable pathways to combating the existential issues of our time. If there is going to be a meaningful reduction in eating of animal meat products in America and around the world, meat alternatives will need to be part of the solution.

BTW, my Impossible Whopper was OK. When hot, the burger was not readily distinguishable from one made from meat. I was reading while I was eating alone. The last bite was no longer warm and had a distinct beany note. The Impossible Whopper without the bun is not nearly as good as gluten-free, meaty burgers from my two favorite burger places. I am not ready to go vegan yet.

Next week: Looking back at the year in processed foods and what is coming next year

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