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The Rise of Plant-Based Alternatives: A Deep Dive into the World of Meat Substitutes

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

There was a surge in plant-based meat sales in the last few years (in the neighborhood of a 45% increase in 2020), but the total market share is still low (peaking at 8.4% in October 2020). It is starting to look like the market for plant-based meat alternatives is starting to stagnate.

What makes people turn to meat alternatives? For some it is environmental concerns, for others animal rights issues, and others to improve health and wellness with a more plant-forward dietary plan (and maybe all three).

There have been plenty of studies showing the benefits of eating more plant-based foods like decreased risk for chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, environmental benefits like reducing greenhouse gasses, water conservation, and reducing land use for cattle, and animal rights issues such as the treatment of these animals on commercial farms.

Speaking of animal rights, there was recent news that they are growing meat in a lab from cells. It will be interesting to see how this pans out in the future for vegans who are eating that way solely for animal rights issues.

An interesting discovery in a 2022 study about the buying behaviors of meat-alternative buyers was that many of the households who purchased plant-based meat, also continued to purchase animal meat products. So, was there really a concern about the treatment of animals influencing their decisions? It doesn’t seem like it according to the data. Perhaps it was to practice “Meatless Mondays” in their household or perhaps different meals were being made for each person like a restaurant. Maybe they just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Part of the nutrition discussion in the country has been whether these plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Burgers, Impossible Meat, Gardein and others are actually better. What are they made of? Are they really better for our health? Are they better for the environment? Are there healthier options?

Many of these products use combinations of concentrated forms of soy, pea protein, wheat, vegetable oils and other legumes (and sometimes beets) to mimic the micronutrient content, mouth feel, and protein content of processed animal meat products like burgers, chicken nuggets, or fish sticks. Meat production contributes to about 14.5 % of all greenhouse gas emissions, destroys forests for grazing land, and uses exorbitant amounts of fresh water (both for the animals and growing their feed), so turning to a plant-based product can improve these environmental factors. But with all the processing involved to make them seem like their ultra-processed counterparts, are these in fact a healthier alternative to animal-based meat products?

And the studies say...YES! Compared to eating a Standard American Diet with animal-based protein sources, plant-based protein (including these processed meat alternatives) can reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. However, eating a whole-food plant-based diet, not just vegan, shows even more risk reduction. What’s the difference?

Well…you can still call yourself vegan and eat French fries from McDonalds, bean burritos from Taco Bell, and fried tofu. These fried and processed foods can still increase your risk for all the diseases I already mentioned. So, maybe (in the words of Christopher Gardner) plant-based meat products have a place in our food system. Maybe plant-based meat is the gateway to lentils (and other more wholesome foods) even for vegans. Maybe these meat alternatives are a good intermediary to whole-food, plant-based eating!

It is in your best health interest to eat WHOLE plant-based foods. These are the foods mainly found on the perimeter of the grocery store. The foods in the produce section, some can be found in the bulk food bins (like nuts & seeds), some can be found in the grain or canned aisles, but most of these foods are found on the outer edge of the grocery store.

These are the foods that they don’t make as much money on. These are the foods that promote health instead of illness. These are the foods that you might have to prepare (sauté, roast, chop, boil, etc.) to turn into a delicious dish. They might take a little bit more work, but with some preparation, you can prioritize healthy plant-based eating into your daily routine. If you need a place to get started, try a veggie might set you on the path to lentils!

Start your journey to a healthier, more balanced life with PIVOT Integrative Consulting, LLC.


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