What’s the beef with 'meat' made from plants?

Nutrition, carbon, water and flavour – Chris Goodall looks into how plant-based meat alternatives stack up against meat and plants.

The large packaged food companies are working on a huge variety of new products that closely imitate meat, but actually contain no animal matter.

Giants such as Nestlé and Unilever are developing foods as various as lamb and smoked salmon substitutes from raw materials that often include peas, soya beans and coconut oil. Many analysts see huge continued growth in plant-based alternatives, such as the vegetarian burgers of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the American companies that helped kindle interest in meat-free products.

Should we welcome the growing interest in replacements for meat? The carbon footprint is certainly lower than the original products. And vegetarian meat substitutes also save water and use less land.

While the precise numbers are still argued about, the overall conclusion is not. From a carbon footprint viewpoint, plants are a lot better than plant-based meat, which in turn is better than meat (particularly beef). 

We cannot avoid the conclusion that all agricultural beef generates lots of greenhouse gases, even when cultivated under the very best conditions. In my experience, I think that most beef farmers now (reluctantly) accept this. Even the argument that small numbers of truly free-range cattle add to carbon storage in the soil doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, however much sympathy we might have with it.

But in many other ways, the current generation of meat substitutes offer few advantages over traditional products. They tend to contain far more added salt and, surprisingly, can also have more saturated fat.

Impossible
Fake meat burgers from the likes of Impossible Burger are made from processed plant protein.

The new foods sometimes also have more calories than the foods they are trying to replace; the Beyond Meat burger contains about 250, slightly more than some of its competitors. It is very likely that improvements in meat substitutes will eventually bring them into line with their competitors but there’s currently little dietary reason to eat the new products.

Perhaps most importantly, meat replacements are almost all highly processed. The manufacturers have invested huge sums in making these products as similar as they can in their taste to the meat equivalents. They are also trying to make them look exactly like the product they are imitating, using beetroot juice, for example, to imitate the blood in beef.

This has meant considerable engineering of foodstuffs to mimic the taste and texture of animal products. The Impossible Burger, one of the most successful entrants to the market, has more than 20 ingredients included some added vitamins and minerals.

After water, the largest constituent is ‘soy protein concentrate’ but this is followed by a wide variety of other heavily manufactured ingredients, such as preservatives.

These meat substitutes can also be very expensive. When I looked at the Tesco website this week, I could buy standard burgers for about half the price of the Beyond Meat plant equivalent.

What about the taste? The evidence is ambiguous; many people like meat substitutes but others find the texture or ‘mouth feel’ very unappealing. The makers of the first generation of processed plant products have tried hard but haven’t yet accurately mimicked all the complex characteristics of meat.

And although they certainly offer substantial carbon savings over meat, we would do much better to consume the ingredients in their unprocessed form.

When eaten simply cooked, the carbon footprint of key ingredients, such as soya, potatoes or peas, is a fraction of when they are served as a highly manufactured meat substitute.

For those seeking to move away from animal products, it may not make sense to switch to the foods that are trying the hardest to imitate meat.

Chris Goodall writes the Carbon Commentary newsletter, where he tracks the latest trends in net zero and other environmental investments. 

27 Comments

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  1. I still fail to see why anybody trying to move away from meat will go out and buy meat substitutes that mimick the thing they are trying to get away from? Surely this is a daily reminder of how nice we find meat to eat? the fact that the meat substitute costs more to produce and is generally worse for you as a food adds to the confusion!

    As the old saying goes “there’s nowt so queer as folks!”

    Luckily I don’t really like the taste of meat, I will eat it, it sort of completes the meal a couple of times a week but the usual amount I eat is fairly close to one rasher of bacon! Or A sausage (and as we know the average British sausage contains close to 40% cereal anyway – hardly worth the effort. the only time I can really justify meat is if I’m engaged in heavy physical labour and I don’t do much of that these days!

    I might also add that a lot of it is what you might call “Folk Memory” back when I was being brought up if you didn’t eat meat you were considered very strange indeed! I tried a meat free diet for a while Vegetarians and vegans hadn’t been invented at time, not even in Hippy Communes in California!

    The Walrus

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    1. Hi Walrus,
      By the time you tried a meat-free diet, vegetarians and vegans had already been around for quite a while. Here are the dates of when the UK’s societies were founded/formed.
      1843 – The British and Foreign Society for the Promotion of Humanity and Abstinence from Animal Food
      1847 – The Vegetarian Society
      1889 – Vegetarian Federal Union was established. This was succeeded by the International
      Vegetarian Union (IVU) in 1908.
      1944 – The Vegan Society

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    2. Thankee! I wonder if it has changed today? Knowing the way the services operate / operated (S-L-O-W-L-Y) if it has (I don’t see how they could get away with not doing something about it mind) it would be grudgingly!

      A simple case of “if it was good enough for my father it’s good enough for me / you” possibly the worst way of stopping progress of any kind!

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    3. Whatever happened to the idea of ‘Wholefood’ eating – never mind making imitation foods from real foods. There are imaginative ways of using peas, beans, lentils, mushrooms etc. without using them to make highly processed imitation meat. Have people become so focused on these novel foods that they have been blinded to the possibilities which real foods can offer? It is of course, so much easier to fry a piece of quorn which looks like a chicken breast, but when someone tried this on me without my knowledge, I was sick, without even knowing what I had eaten.
      Some time ago, there was a sausage mix which went under the name of Sosmix. I did try some of that, despite the long list of ingredients, some of which I couldn’t identify. Even our ever-hungry labrador wouldn’t eat it, though she did eat six rotten goose eggs without a problem and without our consent.
      In the Cranks’ cookery book there is a perfectly good recipe using wholefood everyday ingredients which can be used in sausage, burger or meatball shapes. The flavour can be changed using herbs, mushrooms cheese etc. And one can make perfectly tasty food with mushrooms or cheese as the main ingredient (unless one is a vegan. You won’t get me eating any of the novel substitutes, including those containing insects if I can use everyday ingredients already in my store cupboard or available in a food shop. Though to be honest, I do like meat, and would still be rearing my own if I had the land.
      Perhaps if we all learned to cook with more imagination and think outside the fake food box, we’d do ourselves a favour.

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    4. Looks to me more like a follower of fashion rather than any actually knowledge of the subject – a case of “OH I must have some of . . . . . . because . . . . . . eats it and they say it’s fantastic and it’s shown on the TV programme about . . . . . . . ” Fill in the blanks to suit yourself! 🙂

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    1. I would also express similar suspicions Harriet, but i’d be interested to learn what you base this on? I’m always on the lookout for evidence on this subject.

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    1. Hi Soilman (nice name!). I’m no scientist but aren’t fossil fuels necessary for fertiliser production and hence directly linked to beef production via growing animal foodstuff? Little hard to de-link meat eating from climate change surely. I recognise you qualify your statement with the word ‘primary’. But this is not a comptiton anyone wants to come second or third in!

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    2. Definitely, fossil fuels prop up intensive farming with oil-based pesticides and fertilizers made with natural gas to grow animal feed, not good for climate change or biodiversity. It’s better but it’s still not good if we use these same methods to make food for humans rather than animals!

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  2. I largely agree with “Walrus”. I am an omnivore but I eat meat only at weekends. Otherwise I prefer to have real vegetable dishes (e.g. those described in Veg Hacks) rather then highly processed “meat alternatives”.

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  3. I don’t eat meat, but I also stay away from the processed stuff mostly, unless it’s a rare treat. But this article seems incredibly negative, like they tried to make it seem like they were being open minded but clearly they’re not. This just reinforces that these foods are “unhealthy.” As if a fake hot dog or bacon can be more unhealthy than the original. And usually people consuming these products are more mindful of their diets and healthier than the typical meat eater. Yes, there are plenty of meat eaters who are healthy, but go to a mall or grocery store and see how many people are significantly obese and look at what they’re eating or buying. Finding an unhealthy vegetarian or vegan is a lot harder than finding a healthy or unhealthy meat eater. “There’s no benefit so I’ll continue to be part of the problem, because this or that totally unbiased article said so.”

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    1. Sort of DON’T EAT THIS, but DO Eat that, WHY? Because I said so! Self appointed expert with a lot to say about anything as long as it’s about them! Agree with you on that!

      Walrus

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  4. Notwithstanding the above comments, which I respect; and also the general thrust of the article. We mustn’t forget the important role the good, sustainable beef farmer plays in the stewardship of the countryside and creating habitats for wildlife. A countryside without animals would be a sorry place indeed in my opinion.

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    1. Very true. But modern farming practices – removing hedegrows, fertiliser run off, pesticide and herbicide use etc – are largely responsible for depopulating our countryside of wildlife. We must find a way to farm more sustainably and let’s hope the new generation of young farmers coming up are excited about this challenge.

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  5. I’m worried about the amount of capital that is behind the plant-based industry. Organisations like the World Economic Forum, Unilever, Nestle, they’re all pushing vegan food massively, aiming to make the most of the sustainability narrative and trends to shift away from meat production. But you can be sure that fruit and veg (what we actually need to eat more of) won’t get more attention, it’s not lucrative enough! In order to make profit, companies need to ultra-process food to transform whole foods into a product with more value. Plant-based or not, ultra-processed products underpin a farming system that is intensive, relies on pesticides, fertilisers and monoculture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still far better than ultra-processed and cheap meat that is environmentally devastating and hosts abhorrent animal welfare conditions. But I believe the plant-based industry is still the same old food industry, just the players have a different outfit on.

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  6. I think this is a great article. There is a lot more evidence now that any ultraprocessed food – whether meat or plant based – is damaging to our gut microbiome. Being vegan is not necessarily healthy if you are still eating junk. I was shocked at how difficult it is to eat out as a whole food vegan because restaurants seem to think that everyone wants fake meat, or they are being lazy. I personally think that we need to go back to cooking with a diverse range of whole plant foods, with well sourced meat kept to a minimum if you want to still include that in your diet.

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  7. Balance in all things – and in our current circumstances that surely means adopting a low meat and dairy diet, not necessarily vegan or vegetarian. (That fossil fuels are the cntre of the problem doesn’t let agriculture off the hook – so many of its inputs are fossil fuel derived, quite apart from the horrendous forest clearances that we’re seeing around the world.)
    It’s clear from the widespread scientific consensus that beef and lamb in particular have a very high carbon content, although the use of cattle as agents of biodiversity restoration (as at Knepp, for example) might validate a bit of consumption of meat from such sources.
    We’re lucky and can get shot wild venison which provides us with a fair amount of our once a week meat meals and – in the absence of top predators – is a useful contribution to woodland restoration.
    As to the processed meat equivalents, I suspect that there’s a fair amount of difference between the Nestle et al products and some of those from smaller and much more careful producers – and they’re useful occasionally for those times when cookign from scratch is too time consuming, but not as a regular feature of a diet.

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    1. I think you’re right, I know a few farmers who are making their own brand of oat milk, growing their own oats in a sustainable way as well as a cheesemaker who is making vegan cheese from beans made on ex dairyland. These could be defined as ultra-processed but seem to be very conscious of their impact as well as giving meat reducers more options. With a lot of these things, the issue seems to lie with how corporate interests try to take advantage.

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  8. >

    Sorry I couldn’t get this after the reply with this comment. So I ask “How do you come by this statement?” One really can have no idea by looking at a person what sort of diet they follow – nor can a supermarket trolley tell you. No meat in a trolley could mean someone has an alternative supply, and no vegetables could mean that they have an allotment.

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  9. What an interesting feature. Looking at the whole meat no meat discussion, I believe that everyone has a choice of what they want to eat.

    Balancing out the information available, I think ALL highly processed foods are an unnecessary addition to our diets. One only has to look at Greg Wallace at ‘The Factory’ to realise how utterly gross the process is.

    . On the non meat, meat production, WHY? if you don’t eat meat then, that’s fine, but do you have to eat a manufactured supplement?

    The ingredients in these products , are they organic? Are they sustainably grown, are they coming from deforestation?

    These factories employ a lot of people, and that’s good for employment of course, but, think how much fuel they use to produce said product. So even if it is a vegetarian/vegan sausage, or any other processed food, when you take into consideration the fossil fuels used to produce this, it’s not environmentally friendly.

    These manufacturers are making billions and often using non recyclable packaging alongside poisoning the atmosphere.

    It worries me that more and more people are SO reliant on processed food. It’s easy, timesaving, I understand the problems of busy lives. Because it’s there consumers will buy it. Please, we need to reduce rather than encourage this process.

    Rant over, sorry.

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  10. Apologies for the length of this below. I drafted the original for the PFLA. might find it helpful filling in some of the gaps in the discussion.

    Why pasture-fed cattle and sheep should be seen as part of the solution to global warming in the UK, not the problem
    A few answers to some environmental questions about livestock based on the latest science and research.
    Why are pasture-fed cattle and sheep a better choice for the environment?
     Cattle and sheep can convert grass and other plants that humans cannot eat into meat and milk. Two thirds of farmed land in the UK, and globally, is pasture, so it makes sense to graze cattle and sheep on pasture rather than feeding them grains
     There is growing evidence that well-managed soils using grazing animals can help mitigate global warming
     Farmers that rear their animals on a 100% grass/pasture diet can improve the fertility and productivity of soils through grazing management and the returning of animal manures back to the soil. They also capture carbon in their soils. The effects of drought and flooding are also reduced because the roots of a diverse pasture grow deep – improving soil structure and water retention
    But don’t cattle and sheep produce carbon dioxide and methane that cause global warming?
     Cattle and sheep have not caused global warming but intensive production systems do contribute towards it. The almost universally accepted cause of global warning and associated climate change is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. Other human activities, including the loss and degradation of ecosystems, forests, and soils, have since exacerbated the phenomenon
     Pasture-fed, grain-free production systems such as Pasture for Life, that use existing pastures or land reclaimed from crop production and do not involve the destruction of forests or other ecosystems, have the potential to be carbon-neutral, when combined with mitigation schemes such as agro-forestry, according to Oxford University scientists.
     Methane emissions directly from the digestive system of grazing animals can exacerbate global warming but only if cattle and sheep populations increase. Why? Methane has a big immediate effect but a short lifespan, unlike carbon dioxide that persists for much longer. Herds that have existed for generations at a stable size will not be adding directly to global warming with their methane emissions
     Methane emissions are part of the natural carbon cycle but the burning of fossil fuels and intensive agriculture has disrupted the stabilizing effect of this cycle. Other less climate responsible systems do add significantly to global warming but a move to agroecological systems like Pasture for Life, that help rebuild soils and managing farmland to maximise carbon capture, will increase carbon sequestration and can help combat global warming
    Haven’t I seen that cattle produce more Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions than ALL transportation?

    This was the conclusion made by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2006. However, the study upon which it was based did not compare like with like. It compared the total amount of GHG produced over the lifetime of an animal, known as the Life Cycle Emission (LCE) with just the direct emissions, not the full LCE of transport. This is relevant because transport produces GHG in other ways as well – through vehicle manufacturing, the extraction and refining of fuel, plus road and infrastructure
    construction and maintenance. The comparison was therefore very misleading and has now been corrected with only 5% of direct emissions being attributed to ALL livestock (including those intensively produced) compared to 14% for transport
    Grazing animals fed on pasture only and no grains have few, if any additional LCEs

    Why are pasture-fed cattle and sheep better to eat than grain-fed?
     Intensively reared, grain-fed livestock consume around one third of global grain production. It can take 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef on some intensive farms. This is an inefficient use of resources
     Livestock produced using grains, including pigs and poultry, rely heavily on fossil fuels to grow, harvest, process, transport and feed the grains. In contrast, pasture-fed cattle and sheep rely on existing grasslands and very little use of fossil fuels
     Pasture for Life farming methods allow cattle and sheep to eat a natural diet and meet their behavioural needs. Animal welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming says this offers the best potential for high animal welfare
     Grain-free meat and dairy products have proven health benefits including lower total fats, increased omega-3 fatty acids and increased vitamins and minerals garnered from the animals eating only pasture plants
    If intensively reared livestock use less land per animal and emit less GHG emissions, aren’t chickens and pigs the answer to sustainable food production?
     Intensive livestock farming systems have a high use of fossil fuels through producing feed and fertiliser, transport, electricity etc., which also add to their GHG emissions. Poultry production can be shown to have a higher environmental footprint than cattle in terms of land and water use, and also causes nitrate pollution due to the fertiliser used to grow grain
     Intensively grown grains have resulted in significant soil degradation and loss on arable farms. This is now considered a serious problem for the UK, with some claiming less than 60 years of harvest left. This can be remedied by re-introducing pasture and grazing animals as part of a mixed farming system, with both pasture and dung helping to rebuild soil fertility
     Findings from the ‘Ten years for Agroecology Report’ shows how if we stop feeding ALL animals with grains we can feed the growing population of Europe in 2050 with organic farming methods. This mirrors a report produced by the FAO in 2013, which shows how this could be achieved at a global level
    What about biodiversity?
     Farmers who take a more natural approach to farming by feeding their cattle and sheep only on pasture, inevitably introduce a wide range of wildlife into their fields. They allow their pastures to grow tall, sow a mixture of grasses and herbs, and plant trees and hedgerows, all of which build carbon in the soil
     The UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1950s. These can be successfully restored but need grazing animals to do so effectively. Other rare grassland wildlife habitats also need grazing animals to sustain them
     Rewilding, where land is allowed to go back to nature, has benefits for increasing biodiversity and reversing the harms of historic land use change, but it does not produce food. So, this could be part of the solution in some places, in particular where livestock are used to restore good ecological balance.
    Can I still eat beef, lamb, cheese and drink milk with a clear conscience if it has come from animals that have been pasture-fed?
     Yes, providing it is labelled with the ‘Pasture for Life’ certification mark, meaning it will have come from animals reared exclusively on a pasture diet with no grains fed at any time.
    Where can I find out more?
    Visit the Pasture for Life website (https://www.pastureforlife.org/research) to see a list of scientific references used for this summary, together with a list of recommendations for further reading.

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  11. Am I missing the point…? Or are you?
    I agree with much of the above as in the ‘why meat-looking alternatives? Why factory made, high energy alternatives? Why not just eat beans pulses etc?
    But most of all – vegan/vegi ‘alternatives’ to meat need to be rich in protein…..
    No-one seems to address this. Just eat a burger, eat a sausage – no matter that it is made from highly processed grains and very little protein……
    We need to eat at least 50g of quality protein a day…..that is organic beans, pulses etc each day.
    In reality this is two portions of beans or pulses a day….
    Look at the ingredients of all these ‘made’ meat replacements – they are mostly grains and packers…..
    Just don’t believe the hype – cook your own meals – use whole ingredients and be healthy!!
    Don’t let the bastards grind your health down….!!!

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