Are vegetable meats really healthy and sustainable?

Analysis: Consumers are embracing plant-based meats like never before, but are these pseudo-meats really better for our health and climate?

Consumers are embracing plant-based meats like never before. Vegetarian knockoffs of everything from hamburgers to sausages are now main features of fast food menus and supermarket shelves. Driving this demand are growing concerns about the health and environmental impact of conventional meats.

According to a recent Bord Bia survey, around a third (36%) of Irish consumers now say they are cutting back on animal products. This figure is even higher among the younger generation. To help this transition, many are switching to plant-based alternatives. But are these pseudo-meats really better for our health and the climate?

Are plant-based meats healthy?

In short, it depends. The health effects of any food depend on three factors: the makeup of the nutrients, what they replace in your diet, and most importantly, what else you eat. Therefore, the healthiness of any plant-based meat must be considered in the context of the entire diet. A recent analysis by Safefood revealed that plant-based meats differ greatly in their nutrient makeup. In many cases, these vegetarian doppelgangers outperform regular processed meats, such as beef burgers or pork sausages, boasting fewer calories, total fat and saturated fat. However, pit these mock meats against chicken breasts or lean ground beef and these nutritional benefits start to diminish.

One benefit of plant-based meats is that they usually contain fiber, a nutrient absent from traditional meats and one that most of us struggle to get enough of. But these nutritional gains must be weighed against their deficiencies. For example, the protein content of pseudo-meats is highly variable and generally falls short of their animal equivalents. In fact, only about half of the plant-based meats Safefood examined were high in protein, and one in four wasn’t even an adequate source. Another concern with many plant-based meats is their high salt level. While processed meats often contain comparable amounts, fresh meats have almost none.

Vegetable and regular meats also differ in their micronutrient content. Animal meats are rich in Iron, Zinc and Vitamin B12, nutrients that are less abundant and less easily absorbed from vegetable sources. This means that many plant-based meats are inadequate sources of these essential nutrients. While some manufacturers address these short drops through fortification, this practice is far from widespread.

Plant-based meats are not similar substitutes for real meat, at least nutritionally. But these nutrient differences don’t make all plant-based meats inherently unhealthy. In fact, if you’re on a mixed diet, high in beans, lentils, and whole grains, along with lots of fruits and vegetables, swapping out some of the meat for a plant substitute may be little concern.

Graphic designer: Daniel Hazley, TU Dublin

Are vegetable meats sustainable?

In general, the production of food of plant origin has a lower environmental impact than food of animal origin. No, you don’t need to go vegan to follow a sustainable diet. But most scientists agree that eating less meat, especially red meat, would reduce the environmental impact of our food choices.

The sustainability of plant-based meats, just like their nutritional composition, depends on the ingredients with which they are made. While the exact footprint of many mock meats remains unclear, most research suggests that plant-based meat substitutes have a lower carbon footprint and require less land and water than traditional meats, especially beef and lamb. .

If reducing your food footprint is your primary goal, swapping a beef burger for plant-based alternatives is a step in the right direction. Of course, this singular focus has its limits. Ultimately, the decision to give up meat involves a trade-off between personal preferences, nutritional needs, and ethical and environmental considerations.

Graphic designer: Daniel Hazley, TU Dublin

Criticisms of meat of vegetable origin

Critics of plant-based meats say these foods are unhealthy because they are processed. Others argue instead that we should eat whole foods such as beans, peas or lentils. While these arguments have some merit, they are overly simplistic. The amount of processing, or the number of ingredients a food contains, is a crude and often unhelpful indicator of its healthiness. Yes, many highly processed foods aren’t the best for our health, but branding all processed foods as unhealthy is unfounded.

This also applies to vegetable meats. A plant-based burger high in saturated fat and salt isn’t any more nutritious than its meaty cousin. But some mock meats offer more balanced nutrient profiles. Sure, eating only whole foods would be beneficial, but not everyone has the time or inclination to cook every meal from scratch. Plant-based meats offer a convenient, accessible, and palatable substitute for those looking to eat less meat.

Meat eating is deeply rooted in Irish society. It serves as a vital source of nutrition, supports many livelihoods and is central to Irish cuisine and food culture. But climate change brings many challenges we face and reducing our meat consumption is one of them.

Dietary change alone won’t solve the climate crisis, and plant-based meats are by no means a silver bullet for our health or the planet. But these alternatives may offer a more palatable way to reduce our food footprint, which is one small step towards a greener future. If you choose to eat plant-based meat, opt for items high in protein and low in saturated fat and salt.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RT

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