Are plant-based meat alternatives better for you and the environment?

A vegetarian burger made using a legume-based patty from v2Food.
A vegetarian burger made using a legume-based patty from v2Food. Photo: Maikka Trupp

Plant-based meat has replaced organics as the country's biggest consumer food trend. Callan Boys investigates whether it really is better for the planet and our bodies.

"Imagine this: a world where you can experience the joy of eating all your favourite foods in a way that's healthy, sustainable and ethical. Our mission … is to make that dream a reality."

A lofty goal, indeed. But it's what Queensland-based company Fable is pitching on its pack of "premium braised beef ". There's not one speck of cow in Fable's "magically succulent" beef, mind, rather, shiitake mushrooms, soy protein and eight other ingredients.

You may have seen Fable's plant-based products near the meat section of your local supermarket. Perhaps you've tried its heat-and-serve stroganoff, "just like mamushka used to make".

You have also probably worked out that alternative meat is the biggest thing to hit the food world now and for years to come.

Two-year-old Fable is just one of many players vying for a slice of the $185 million Australian plant-based pie (tipped to reach $3 billion by 2030).

Many players are vying for a slice of the plant-based pie.
Many players are vying for a slice of the plant-based pie. Photo: James Brickwood

Analysts at UK bank Barclays predict the global spend on plant-based meats will hit 10 per cent of a $1.4 trillion global meat market by 2029, up from less than 1 per cent in 2019.

Plant-based meat grocery sales jumped by 46 per cent in Australia in 2020 compared to 2019, according to think tank Food Frontier and Deloitte Access Economics. Our supermarket shelves are now groaning with 200 plant-based meat products, double that of the previous year.

These products aren't your mamushka's lentil burger either. Billions of development dollars have been spent trying to replicate the real thing so that the product will appeal as much – and often more – to meat-eaters as to vegans.

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"It took 57 recipe iterations to get [plant-based burger] the Rebel Whopper to a point where we were happy to launch it, and we've gone past version 90 now," says Nick Hazell, chief executive of v2Food, the Australian meat-alternative company backed by Hungry Jacks' billionaire owner Jack Cowin and the CSIRO.

"We're improving all the time, and we're not going to stand still," says Hazell. "I'm running 18 different research projects in partnership with the CSIRO on everything from protein extraction and f lavour chemistry, to crop science and sustainability."

Like Fable, v2Food isn't shy about claiming the environmental and personal health benefits of its legume-based mince and snags.

These ultra-processed foods have little in common with the plants they are derived from.

"Good for you, good for the planet", the company's website spruiks. It's a narrative common to many meat-alternative brands, including US-based market leader Beyond Meat.

But how much better for the planet and our bodies is Meat 2.0 really?

IT'S COMPLICATED

Intensive animal agriculture is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. Cows are the worst ruminant offenders for reasons such as methane production and land clearing, plus the energy required to grow the grain that feeds them. A plant-based burger must be better for the environment than a traditional meat patty then?

"The problem with assessing meat alternatives is that you can estimate the environmental impact of a product based on its ingredients, but there's also a lot of energy and processes involved behind the scenes," says Dr Michalis Hadjikakou, an environmental science lecturer at Deakin University.

"Emerging research shows that for many of these meat alternatives, their environmental impact is somewhere between chicken and pork.

"It's not really comparable to lentils or peas," says Hadjikakou. "If you're replacing beef, which is what most of the products are aimed towards, then yes, they are a more sustainable option. However, unprocessed wholefoods and vegetables are better again."

Most plant-based meats are made with extracted legume protein that has been milled, filtered, dried and purified, before being bound with other ingredients to make a burger, schnitzel or sausage. The ingredients panel of a meat alternative will likely list assorted thickeners, starches, vegetable oils and preservatives.

IS MEAT THE PROBLEM?

"The lines about saving the planet these companies use are hypocritical and manipulative," says Laura Dalrymple, co-owner of Sydney butchery Feather and Bone, which specialises in ethically sourced meat.

"When a product contains ingredients such as soy and coconut oil, where is the transparency around where that stuff comes from and how it's grown?

"We're running into the arms of a processed, scientific solution, but it's just reinforcing so much of the behaviour that got us into this [environmental] pickle to start with."

For Dalrymple, it's not the cow, it's the how. "Meat isn't the problem – the issue is human behaviour and our dysfunctional relationship with nature," says the co-author of meat buying and cooking handbook The Ethical Omnivore.

"We should be promoting ecosystem health instead. Farmed the right way, cows can actually help to store carbon in soil and the methane can be counterbalanced.

"But now we're seeing big meat manufacturers, such as Tyson Foods in the US, with one arm deep in the most disgusting and destructive forms of animal protein production while the other arm develops these highly processed meat substitutes. They're having a bet both ways."

Dalrymple, Hadjikakou and Hazell all agree on one thing – Australia and the rest of the world need to eat less meat. Unfortunately, when a country's affluence increases, so doe its meat consumption.

"When you do the maths, it's terrifying," says Hazell, who was research and development director at PepsiCo before founding v2Food in 2019. "In 10 years, the number of hectares required to supply China with meat will be equivalent to half the Amazon. And that's just China."

Raw vegan burgers made of beetroot, green peas, carrots, groats and herbs on white parchment prepared for baking, top view vegan burgers
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Many modern meat alternatives are not comparable to patties made from lentils or peas (pictured). Photo: iStock

A DIETITIAN'S VIEW

With the average Australian consuming about twice the amount of red meat advised by the Australian Dietary Guidelines (455 grams a week), eating less beef would also be better for our own health. But are these products the best replacement?

"Plant-based meats can serve as a reasonable alternative for people following a plant-based diet or those seeking to reduce their meat consumption," says Nicole Dynan, founder of Sydney-based dietitian service The Good Nutrition Company.

"However these are ultra-processed foods, in that they are industrial formulations with five or more ingredients. They have little in common with the plants they are derived from. I would recommend consuming these sometimes rather than every day."

Plant-based meats can also be high in sodium and saturated fat, and lower in protein than real meat, says Dynan. Plant and animal proteins are built differently, too.

"Protein in these products is usually sourced from soy, wheat, pea, rice or mung bean," says the accredited dietitian. "Only soy protein contains all the essential amino acids that animal protein contains, but two of those acids are only found in small amounts in soy."

On the plus side, however, plant-based meat can compare favourably with animal meat for certain nutrients, says Dynan. "And a number have added fibre, which you won't get from meat. But if you're substituting these products for meat as a means of improving your health, you'll probably get more value from eating good-quality lean meat."

FUTURE FRONTIERS

Most plant-based meat products in Australia are imported and meat alternatives made domestically, such as v2Food, rely on overseas protein, but Hazell is working to change this.

"Australia grows a lot of legumes, but they're all exported unprocessed," he says. "We've been scoping plans for more than a year for protein extraction in Australia but it's a difficult and expensive exercise."

Also gathering momentum is cellular agriculture – growing food from animal cells in a lab. Last December, Singapore became the world's first government to approve the sale of lab-grown meat, but Hadjikakou says the science is still a long way from creating an affordable commercial product.

"You could argue that all these things are needed in some proportion, because we're in such a bad situation and we can't reduce our emissions quickly enough," he says. "But the food system needs to transform into something more sustainable, and I'm not sure these [meat alternative] companies are the transition we need.

"Rather, we need to reduce our animal consumption, especially from ruminants, and these alternatives aren't really transitioning people away from the taste of meat."

Dalrymple believes buying meat with a traceable and transparent supply chain is a better way to mitigate climate change than eating plant-based beef.

Acknowledging that meat from a farm practising sustainable agriculture can be more expensive than a pack at the supermarket, the butcher says there's a "knock-on cost you don't pay at the checkout, but we pay collectively as a society".

"Whether you're buying meat, fruit, herbs or vegetables, look for food which comes out of a system that is the most natural … that's our insurance against future problems."