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Meatless Meat Is Everywhere. But How Good Is It For Us And The Planet?

As Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat secure deals with fast-food outlets, we look at how these plant-based burgers stack up for climate and health.

Meatless burgers just got the ultimate seal of approval from the fast-food industry.  McDonald’s, the world’s biggest burger chain, has started selling plant-based patties at a number of outlets in Canada, with restaurants in America expected to follow next year

Its competitor Burger King, along with a handful of other fast-food outlets, has already launched a $5 meat-free burger in some of its U.S. stores. You might still need to request that your meatless patty is cooked on a separate grill (Burger King is currently being sued by a customer who claims his plant-based burger was contaminated by meat products), but it’s a start. 

Until recently, vegan or vegetarian options in the major fast-food chains were limited. Meat dominated the menu.  

That’s changing fast. People are increasingly seeking out non-meat options, often out of concern for the environmental impact of what they eat, and companies are racing to capitalize on this.

From meatless meat startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to the world’s biggest food business Nestlé, companies are producing food that looks, and often tastes, just like meat and that tends to be marketed to meat-eaters. Even big meat companies, such as Tyson and Cargill, are rushing to invest. 

Meatless companies are touting their plant-based products as a planet-saving solution that will enable us to eat as many burgers as we want. (And they provide something of a retort to the right-wing claims that Green New Deal-supporting Democrats want to “take away your hamburgers.”) But how do their claims stack up?

Sales in the plant-based foods category reportedly grew in the U.S. by more than 20% in 2018, surpassing $3 billion. And the easiest entry point seems to be fast food. 

Impossible Foods ― which is behind Burger King’s meat-free patty ― has seen a surge in sales over the past month since launching in retail stores across Southern California and New York City. It plans to make its burgers, which cost around $1 more than meat ones, available in other restaurants, universities, theme parks and stadiums. 

Other fast-food giants are getting in on the action too. Last month Denny’s started selling Beyond Meat’s meatless burgers. Dunkin’ is selling a meat-free sausage sandwich in 9,000 U.S. outlets, while Nestlé says it is planning a burger and bacon cheeseburger completely free of animal products to launch in 2020 for the food service and retail sector. 

On the face of it, a world with less meat brings a host of potential benefits: reduced climate emissions chief among them. Meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Less meat would also mean fewer antibiotics (overuse of antibiotics in animals has been blamed for contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria), and less animal cruelty, if you disapprove of modern, intensive farming methods and animal slaughter. Globally, more than 50 billion animals are killed every year for us to eat. In the U.S. alone, just under 3 million cows are slaughtered each year

But while meatless meat is helping to raise the profile of the climate impacts of meat-eating, experts are warning it is “not a silver bullet” for creating healthy and sustainable diets. Most agree that choosing a meatless burger option over a meat burger is better if you want to reduce your environmental impact, but, they warn, don’t think these burgers will “save the earth,” as one company promises.

How good are they for the planet?

Meatless burger companies sell themselves hard on their environmental credentials, and they have a strong case. Livestock accounts for 41% of land in the U.S., according to a Bloomberg report, if you include pastures for rearing animals and the fields needed to grow crops for their feed. No longer raising millions of animals for slaughter would leave vast amounts of land free for other purposes, including growing vegetables, and result in a significant drop in climate emissions, say both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Michigan, commissioned by Beyond Meat, found that producing its burgers generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses 93% less land and requires almost half as much energy as producing a quarter-pound of U.S. beef. Impossible Foods has made similar claims about its burgers.

Cattle awaiting slaughter in feedlot in west Texas. Just over 40% of U.S. land is used for livestock, to rear them and to gro
Cattle awaiting slaughter in feedlot in west Texas. Just over 40% of U.S. land is used for livestock, to rear them and to grow their food.

There have been criticisms of the use of genetically modified soy in Impossible Foods’ burger. (Beyond Meat uses pea protein instead of soy protein.) More than 90% of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Big soy monocultures are bad for the environment ― among other problems, they are bad for biodiversity and for soil health ― and meatless meat would still rely on soy, and bigger quantities of it if meatless meat were to replace meat products altogether. But even at scale, the amounts used would likely be far smaller than those used to feed meat-producing animals now.

Impossible Foods has argued that soy is a high-yielding crop and a good source of protein, and that it sources it from the U.S. to avoid any links to deforestation in the Amazon. The company also points out that it uses far less water and fewer pesticides to produce an Impossible Burger than what goes into an average American beef burger, because of the large amount of crops required to feed a cow to produce beef.

“Soy has a tiny fraction of the carbon footprint of raising, slaughtering and transporting animals,” a spokesperson for Impossible Foods told HuffPost.

Research has found a switch away from meat (and dairy) would have a “transformative potential” benefit in terms of climate emissions, as well as land and freshwater demands. A typical meatless burger has about half the emissions of chicken and about 10 times less emissions than beef, according to Marco Springmann, senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford.

If people wanted to go one step further, said Springmann, they could switch to whole foods. “One can always go lower, and moving to less processed foods, such as unprocessed beans or lentils would always be preferable from an environmental perspective. The footprints of those unprocessed foods are about five times less than processed burgers made from those ingredients,” he said. 

It’s still fast food

If you’re looking to meatless burgers to provide you with a healthy meal, on par with a plate of vegetables, you will be disappointed. A quick health check on the ingredients of Burger King’s meatless burger compared with its meat whopper shows that, while it has less cholesterol and marginally fewer total calories, it has more salt and sugar and a similar amount of saturated fat. 

A plethora of meatless marketing has led people to think that meatless burgers are “just squished plants” rather than processed food, said Patty Lovera, a director at the nongovernmental organization Food & Water Watch. We should avoid rushing to embrace meatless alternatives as a healthy option, she warned.

“Yes, [meatless meat] is the lesser of two evils, so if you’re going to eat a burger then eat a plant-based one, but we should also be questioning why we’re eating fast food,” Lovera said. 

The closer consumers can get to eating whole foods ― those that have been processed as little as possible and are free from additives or other artificial substances ― the better it will be for their health, she added. 

An Impossible Whopper burger at a Burger King restaurant in Alameda, California. 
An Impossible Whopper burger at a Burger King restaurant in Alameda, California. 

“In the past a veggie burger could be as simple as grains and beans mushed together, but that has changed with the new range of meatless burgers. ... They are aggressively imitating meat by using lots of additives, oils and coloring,” said Lovera.

It’s an argument echoed by Josh Berson, anthropologist and author of “The Meat Question,” a new book about human needs and desire for meat. “Every year we’re waiting for veggies to have their time and now all of a sudden people are eating these mock burgers that they wouldn’t have touched a few years ago. It’s a Silicon Valley solution,” said Berson. 

Some fast-food companies have rejected meatless meat on this basis. Chipotle, for example, has said it won’t offer the meatless alternatives from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat on its menu as the current options available are too processed and use too many ingredients.

But it’s a point meatless meat companies push back on. A spokesperson for Beyond Meat told HuffPost all foods involve some level of processing and that “bypassing the animal to build burgers and sausage directly from plants is a process which is far more sustainable and humane.”

“Beyond Meat products are designed to at least meet, if not exceed, the nutritional benchmarks of its animal protein equivalent,” the spokesperson told HuffPost, adding that the level of salt in their burgers is only 16% of an adult’s daily recommended salt intake.

The health argument ultimately comes down to the benchmark you use. Compared to a salad or some steamed vegetables, for instance, the nutritional value of meatless meats is unlikely to match up. But compared to a meat burger, they are at least as healthy.  

A potential gateway to changing diets

A big advantage of meatless meat products is that they can provide an easy way for people who eat meat to change their eating habits, without it seeming like a radical alteration in their lifestyle.

Meatless burgers can act as a facilitator of change and help more people switch to eating less meat, said Laura Wellesley, a research fellow at the U.K.-based think tank Chatham House. However, she did note that we don’t yet know whether fast-food outlets are seeing falling meat burger sales as a result of introducing meatless alternatives.

“If McDonald’s found that the meat-free burgers were really taking a chunk out of their meat burger sales, then you could argue that this is a net positive for the climate and that it has a neutral impact on public health ― assuming that overall sales of burgers didn’t go up,” she added.

She argued that the best solution for diets that are good for our health and the planet would be for nutritious foods to become more widely available to everyone in society and cheaper to buy too ― just as less healthy meat and meatless burgers are at present. But this kind of change “won’t happen quickly enough” to mitigate against climate change. 

By dipping their toes into the meatless meat market, said Wellesley, these fast-food companies have helped raise the profile of meat-eating and its risks ― along with increasing evidence of the health impacts of overconsumption and growing public concern for climate change.”

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