More plants, less meat?
Evidence supports the contention that diets high in processed meat predict greater risk of adverse health outcomes including cardiovascular disease and premature death. Interestingly, high-quality omnivorous diets (including lots of plant foods) do not show the typical associations between red meat consumption and adverse health outcomes. The food industry has developed meat-free, plant-based alternatives to beef burgers. People who buy veggie burgers may believe that they contain all of the positive nutritional attributes of beef burgers without the negatives. Veggie burgers appear to be suitable substitutes for the sensory experience of eating meat but are not nutritionally equivalent to the meat they replace. Plants contain a vast array of phytochemicals that contribute to human nutrition, most of which are not captured during the process of making veggie burgers.
A trio of researchers examined the human health and climate change impacts of plant-based meats. The combination of meat and plants may provide more nutritional benefits than either alone. Amino acid complementation (such as eating beans with rice) may lead to lower levels of circulating essential amino acids compared to leucine-matched whey (animal) protein. Adequate intakes of certain vitamins and minerals ingested in food (but not as additives in veggie burgers) predict lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Calculations of the ecological footprint of vegetarian/vegan diets vs. omnivorous diets do not account for the reduced bioaccessibility and bioavailability of plant sources for certain nutrients, including protein, iron, and vitamin A. Veggie burgers may have a smaller ecological footprint than conventional (feedlot-finished) beef. The health and ecological impacts of meat production depend on numerous interacting factors.
Well-managed farms with plant-diverse pastures can fix in long-term soil storage all of the greenhouse gases that the meat animals produce. Substantial areas of land in the US and world-wide are not suitable for crop production but are suitable for grazing animals. Well-managed grasslands, especially in moist environments, can serve as carbon sinks. The methane produced by belching cows and other ruminant animals is a highly potent greenhouse gas, yet it has a short lifespan after which it’s converted to carbon dioxide, which has a far longer lifespan in the atmosphere. Methane from cattle is not likely to substantially increase atmospheric CO2 in the US.
Paul Hawken in his book Drawdown identified regenerative practices, such as farmland restoration, conservation agriculture, and managed grazing, as collectively the number one way to sequester greenhouse gases. On an individual farm basis, the integration of plant and animal production can improve soil health and increase crop yield. The increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as veggie burgers, may indirectly but greatly increase the production of greenhouse gasses. In a Japanese study, meat consumption made a minor contribution to the ecological footprint of diet. Confectionery intake, dining out, and alcohol made much greater contributions. We Americans would likely be better off nutritionally by shifting the standard American diet to one that emphasizes whole foods, including modest amounts of animal products from well-managed pasture operations.
Nutrition Facts labels
Consumer concerns about possible negative effects of red meat on human health have fueled development of plant-based alternatives to hamburgers. Nutrition Facts labels on these alternative products seem to show that veggie burgers are nutritionally equivalent to beef burgers. In fact, plants contain a plethora of phytochemicals that appear in the meat and milk of animals, especially grass-fed animals. Recent research shows that meat and milk from grass-fed animals contains much higher concentrations of certain phytochemicals that appear to possess anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and cardio-protective properties than plant-based meat alternatives. Grazing animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, that feed on pastures with high plant species diversity show higher concentrations of phytochemicals in their meat and milk compared to animals grazed on plant monocultures or complete rations in feedlots. Plus, animals raised in diverse pastures exhibit better health than those raised on monocultures and/or finished in feedlots. The potential contribution of selected phytochemicals to promote human and animal health may be substantial but is largely ignored.
Most people who buy plant-based meat alternatives, such as veggie burgers, probably believe that the Nutrition Facts label of the meatless alternatives closely matches that of the comparable meat product. Given that plants contain a wide variety of chemical compounds, researchers used a used a metabolomics approach (focusing on chemicals involved in metabolism) to determine the similarity of a much wider array of nutrients in meat and a meat-alternative. Eighteen samples of grass-fed ground beef and 18 samples of a popular plant-based meatless alternative were cooked then analyzed using gas chromatography / mass spectrometry. Results revealed markedly different concentrations of certain groups of nutrients (such as amino acids, saccharides, and phenols) in grass-fed ground beef and the plant-based alternative. Some of the nutrients possess anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and cardio-protective properties that may support human health. Thus, ground beef and the meatless alternative are not nutritionally interchangeable. Rather, meat and plant-based foods may nutritionally complement each other.
Sustainable food production
A recent review tackled the challenge of sustainably producing healthful animal and plant foods sufficient to feed 10 billion Earthlings by 2050. The authors acknowledged the current inefficiencies and environmental damage of both grain and meat production. The current model of confined livestock operations (both beef and dairy) is likely unsustainable environmentally and increasingly unacceptable societally. The authors proposed solution lies in integrated complexes of animals and plants that work in concert to minimize external inputs of energy and fertilizers and minimize outputs of pollutants. Many possible avenues exist. For example, wastes from one type of animal (cattle) could be captured and used to produce food for another animal (ducks) whose wastes are routed into ponds where the wastes feed invertebrates that provide food for fish, with the pond water used to fertilize farm fields with perennial legumes and grasses that the cattle eat. Such a system would largely keep nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, on the farm and out of waterways, while building soil fertility.
Christopher Bryant, a consultant to alternative protein companies, reviewed 43 published studies related to the environmental and health aspects of plant-based, animal product alternatives. Overall, he found that plant-based alternatives are preferable to animal-based products in terms of less greenhouse gas emissions, less water and land use, less water pollution, and less prophylactic use of antibiotics. He also found that plant-based alternatives generally had better nutritional profiles than comparable animal-based products with some exceptions. He also noted that alternative protein companies should be capable of improving the nutritional status of plant-based, meat alternatives, such as reducing salt and sugar and increasing high-quality protein and micronutrients.
Where to we go from here?
These studies highlight the unsustainability of our food production system. The path to sustainability will likely require concerted efforts that minimize expensive farm inputs (fertilizers, pesticides), reduce undesirable outputs (greenhouse gases, water pollutants), treat animals that provide us with food more humanely, and build soil fertility. We’ll eat less meat and more plants.
Will veggie burgers boost our health and help save the planet? Maybe so. But the bigger and more important question is whether we humans can devise sustainable food production systems that will adequately feed 10 billion people in the coming decades.