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.
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.