Meat—be it hamburgers, filet mignon, or bacon on a BLT—has long functioned as the centerpiece of the American diet. But thanks to growing awareness of the health and environmental impacts of meat, consumers are increasingly seeking out alternatives. Innovative foods are coming to the fore that combine old ingredients in new ways to so closely mimic meat that they are virtually indistinguishable from it. At the same time, other products are, in fact, the real thing, produced in novel ways. Other enduring meat alternatives have been around for millennia.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO EATING MEAT?
The high daily consumption of meat is a relatively recent phenomenon in wealthier countries, mainly due to how resource-intensive animal products are in comparison to plant-based foods. Especially before the advent of industrial agriculture, meat was costly and was considered food for special occasions or reserved exclusively for the wealthy. For this and other reasons, including religious beliefs and longstanding cultural practices, traditional diets worldwide tend to incorporate more plant-based foods than contemporary diets, especially compared to current dietary patterns in higher-income countries.
For those who are accustomed to eating meat at every meal, the idea of vegetarian diets (which can include eggs and dairy), or plant-based diets (which are predominantly vegan), might bring to mind an oft-asked question: how to get sufficient dietary protein? While it is possible to consume too much protein, there are many plant-based foods that simultaneously provide adequate dietary protein and a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals to boot.
Lentils are popular throughout the world and for good reason. Being twenty-five percent protein and good sources of iron, B vitamins, and more, these legumes can provide many health benefits and are also versatile ingredients used in a wide variety of dishes.
Beans can help reduce heart disease and are a great choice for people living with diabetes, as well as packing a serious protein punch., From chickpeas to black beans, these legumes are a healthy and cost-effective way to replace chicken, beef, or other animal products.
TOFU AND TEMPEH
Tofu has been considered the original plant-based meat for thousands of years. While the origins of this curdled soy milk product remain unknown and steeped in myth, tofu has spread from ancient China around the world, becoming a mainstay in many cuisines.
Tempeh is another soy-based food that can be used as a meat substitute, thanks to its high protein content. Made by fermenting whole soybeans, this Indonesian food is high in calcium, riboflavin, niacin, and other nutrients, as well as being rich in prebiotics—types of fiber that encourage healthy gut flora.
In addition to the nutritional benefits legumes such as lentils, beans, and soy carry for human health, these crops also contribute to the health of the agricultural landscape since they promote soil fertility by making nitrogen more available to other plants.
WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE MEAT?
Alternatives to meat have been around for millennia. But food cultures are rarely static, and many factors, including the desire for novelty and the desire for greater sustainability, are driving the creation of entirely new kinds of products to replace meat.
Alternative meat is a broad category, encompassing a range of foods that are meant to mimic the experience of eating meat as closely as possible. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible are on the leading edge of the alternative meat movement, with products that are clearly differentiated from the humble veggie burgers commonly found on the vegetarian section of menus. Alternative meats are often marketed directly and primarily to meat consumers rather than vegetarians or vegans. By targeting mainstream consumer audiences, the total potential market is not only far more extensive, but so too are the potential environmental, social, and animal welfare benefits that may come from shifting consumer behavior in favor of reduced meat consumption.
WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE MEAT MADE OF?
Alternative meat is a far cry from the typical black-bean burger. These products can be divided into two basic categories, depending on whether they are created using plant ingredients or are composed of real animal cells.
As the name suggests, plant-based meats are created using ingredients sourced from plants. There are many different types of plant-based meats, crafted with recipes intended to imitate the taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of real meat. Some plant-based meats are fortified with vitamins and minerals to approximate the nutritious components of meat while cutting out the more unhealthy aspects like hormones, cholesterol, and saturated fats.
The ingredients of many products, such as popular meat replacements from Beyond Meat, include pea protein isolate and mung bean protein, both of which help to deliver similar protein content to real meat. Binding agents and seasonings include coconut oil and cocoa butter, lemon juice, and beet juice extract. The Impossible burger famously bleeds, thanks to the company’s development of a plant-based version of heme, an iron molecule that helps give animal-based meat its authentic taste and aroma.
CULTIVATED / CULTURED MEAT
Unlike plant-based alternative meat, cultivated meat[i] is made of genuine animal cells just like regular meat—the major difference being that these products are grown independently of any animal’s body, meaning living animals do not need to be raised, confined, or killed en masse. By growing cells instead of animals, these products truly earn the nickname “slaughter-free meat.”
Cultivated meat begins as a small biopsy taken from a living donor animal, typically with anesthesia, so the animal does not experience any pain. The cluster of cells is then placed into a medium that encourages cell growth by providing all the things cells need to survive and multiply, like glucose, amino acids, vitamins, and proteins. The cells replicate, resulting in a mass that resembles hamburger meat or chicken nuggets. When seeded onto microscopic scaffolds, cells can grow into the form of steak or other more textured products that mimic animal muscle.
WHY ARE THERE ALTERNATIVE MEATS?
These days meat is relatively abundant and cheap, a consequence of government subsidies and an industrial agricultural model—including concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—that externalizes the significant environmental and public health costs of meat production. Meat consumption continues to rise despite meat’s significant animal, human and environmental harms, making meat reduction a wicked problem for advocates and policy makers to solve.
The truth is that meat is still resource-intensive and expensive—only now these costs are disproportionately borne by people who are systematically disenfranchised, by the environment, and by the animals themselves, who generally languish in conditions of substandard welfare. The plant-based and cultured meat industries can potentially contribute towards a more sustainable future where these costs are significantly reduced.
Animals raised for food must themselves be fed, requiring vast amounts of water and land in order to grow the grain crops they consume. Plant-based meats cut animals out of this equation entirely, using the crops that would otherwise be fed to animals and turning them directly into meat-like products.
Plant-based meats can be effective at encouraging people to reduce their meat intake, especially if consumers feel that alternative products still deliver the flavor and overall experience of eating meat. Plant-based meats can replace hamburgers and sausages for summer barbecues, meatballs in spaghetti dishes, or shrimp in pad thai. These products can also ultimately help to ease people out of a meat-centric diet and make the transition toward more plant-based diets easier and more palatable.
Despite growing awareness of the inhumane conditions in intensive animal operations and the litany of negative environmental and social consequences of meat production, the number of vegetarians in the US continues to hover at around five percent, whereas vegans comprise anywhere from one to three percent of the population. There are many reasons for the widespread prevalence of meat-heavy diets. Meat can be strongly habitual and compulsive, especially given the fact that meat culture is so deeply ingrained in American society and has long been associated with conceptions of masculinity. Meat-eating is not always an easy habit to break.
Yet this is one of the biggest reasons why cultivated meat is significant for efforts to reduce overall meat consumption. Cultivated meat can achieve slightly different aims than plant-based meats. The advantage of cultivated meat lies in its authenticity. Because these are real meat products, people may be more willing to swap out all their conventionally raised meats for those that are cultivated and still maintain their level of meat consumption. And this can be done without causing harm to animals—something that is of concern to many meat consumers.
IS ALTERNATIVE MEAT HEALTHY?
While meat contains nutrients that can be beneficial, there are also many problematic chemicals and compounds in meat that can wreak havoc on the human body. Cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics, and residues from agrichemicals are commonly found within raw meat. Other compounds in meat increase inflammation in the body and may become carcinogenic when meat is cooked. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer are associated with consuming high volumes of meat., Because of these risks, reducing meat intake can be healthy.
But eating a plant-based sausage is not the same thing as eating a salad, even though both meals are composed of plants. The most nutritious, health-promoting diets are replete with a wide variety of unprocessed foods, also known as whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains like brown rice. Plant-based meat replacement products are not necessarily meant to be eaten every day or to take the place of a balanced and unprocessed diet.
When it comes to cultivated meat, there are a few obvious advantages that these products have over their CAFO-raised counterparts, even though both are made of real animal flesh. For one thing, no antibiotics are needed to grow cultivated meat, which helps to cut down on the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Cultured meat also does not become contaminated with dangerous bacteria like E. coli. The fat and cholesterol levels can also be reduced during the production of cultivated meat.
IS ALTERNATIVE MEAT BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Part of the impetus behind the development of alternative meats is to reduce the pressure that animal agriculture exerts on the environment. Globally, around seventy-seven percent of the land currently under cultivation is used for animal agriculture. Cattle ranching and growing industrial feed crops for animals in CAFOs are two of the leading causes of deforestation in critical habitats like the Amazon rainforest. Beef products require around twenty times more water per calorie than crops like cereals, and emissions from farmed animals account for around fifteen percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Alternative meats, both plant-based and cultivated, have the potential to avoid some of these harms. Plant-based meat drastically cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, energy expenditure, and water use. Cultivated meat is also expected to make similar impacts regarding energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, especially if they are produced using renewable energy sources.
Of course, no solution is perfect, and there may be some pitfalls to meat alternatives. The sector has boomed in recent years, attracting major investment and generating IPOs. Alternative meat is rapidly becoming big business, and with that comes the trappings of industrial food production that can be so problematic. Today’s industrial food system in the US is highly mechanized, monopolistic, vertically integrated, and designed for high outputs—all factors that can disadvantage smaller farmers economically, as well as generating their own set of negative environmental consequences, even though these may be less than those of conventional animal agriculture. It is challenging to align industrial agriculture with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, even if it is used to produce plant-based foods.
Solutions such as divesting corporate control from food production and re-investing in small farms and farming communities can help create more robust, sustainable, and compassionate food systems that may better serve the country and the world.
CAN ALTERNATIVE MEAT END MEAT CONSUMPTION FOR GOOD?
In higher-income nations like the US and Australia, more affluent segments of the population have access to abundant meat alternatives and wholesome plant foods. Yet these countries also account for some of the highest per-capita meat consumption in the world, as well as heavily relying upon industrialized animal agriculture. For people in these countries with the advantage of dietary options, reducing meat consumption is not only a possibility but a growing moral responsibility—to help stave off the worst of the environmental and climatic crises that are fueled by meat consumption and that predominantly affect those who are less advantaged.
Reducing the negative impacts of meat and other animal foods is a global problem, but responsibility for shifting diets falls most on those countries and individuals who currently consume the largest amount of animal products. In lower-income countries and in regions with fewer food options and greater prevalence of chronic hunger and undernutrition, the goal of eradicating hunger may supersede the priority of reducing meat consumption.
While plant-based diets can offer nutrition and environmental benefits for all populations, small-scale traditional animal farming may supply important nutrition in regions struggling with hunger, especially where plant-based alternative foods are not currently accessible, nutritionally sufficient, or culturally appropriate. However, upholding food justice and food sovereignty means correcting economic imbalances that lead to poor nutrition, and working toward a global food system where the benefits of locally-appropriate plant-based foods are open to all.
Ultimately, it’s too early to tell whether alternative meats will drive global diet change, especially given that cultivated meat has yet to become available to people who consume food in much of the world. But these products provide hope—that those most responsible for the negative consequences of animal agriculture could begin to reduce or even eliminate their consumption of its products.
Alternative meat is still a relatively new idea and a nascent sector, with many products still in development. But given the interest in meat alternatives, along with the numerous potential health, environmental, and animal benefits, it is likely that alternative meat is here to stay. Time will tell as to whether these products will alter meat consumption in the US or globally. Still, so far, the increased public interest and acceptance that alternative meat has been receiving, along with the investments and ingenuity backing the sector, suggest a potentially bright future indeed.
Disclosure: Stray Dog Capital, part of the Stray Dog family of organizations, invests in early-stage companies across the food, beverage, and biotechnology sectors.
[i] Cultivated meat refers to animal meat that is grown directly from cells, without requiring the slaughter of live animals. Cultivated meat goes by many names, including “clean,” “cultured,” “cell-based,” and “lab-grown” meat. Yet among these terms “lab-grown” is a misnomer. When production reaches scale, cultivated meat will be made by local businesses using temperature- and pressure-controlled tanks similar to those used today by micro-breweries. For more on the importance of using accurate and aware terminology to describe cultivated meat, please see https://gfi.org/blog/cultivatedmeat/.
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