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Is fake meat better for you, or the environment?

Based on calories alone, plant-based protein is healthier than animal-based meat. But there's much more to the story.
Image: Is fake meat just another over processed scam?
Fake meat has found its way into mainstream fast-food chains. But is the hype to be believed?Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Impossible Foods

McDonald’s has joined other fast-food giants like Burger King to launch its own plant-based burger. Sen. Cory Booker fielded a question about his vegan lifestyle during the recent Democratic presidential debate. And Impossible Foods plans to launch fishless fish alongside its meatless burgers in the near future.

So-called fake meat, or alternative meat products, is rising in popularity as consumers look to eat a more sustainable diet. But are the plant-based burgers really better for the environment? And how do they compare to meat in terms of calories and health benefits?

What is fake meat?

There is no industry-wide term for these products. Traditional meat companies argue that the word “meat” should apply only to animal-raised protein.

In general, alternative meat products fall into two categories: plant-based protein and cell-based protein. In plant-based protein products, protein is extracted and isolated from the plant, then combined with other plant-based ingredients with the goal of making the product as meaty as possible. Popular examples of plant-based meat include the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger and the myriad of options now commonly found in the freezer section of the grocery store.

In cell-based meat, an animal cell is extracted from an animal and grown in a lab culture to create a piece of meat. In the six weeks it takes to grow a chicken for slaughter, the cell culture-based process produces the same amount of meat, minus the bones, feathers, etc. JUST Meat and Memphis Meats are two popular examples of companies growing cell-based meat; such cell-based products, however, have not yet been released into the mass market.

Is it healthier than actual meat?

Based on calories alone, plant-based protein is healthier than animal-based meat. The Impossible Whopper from Burger King is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than the regular Whopper. Cell-based meat also has the potential to be healthier than regular animal meat because it can be engineered to contain more protein, essential amino acids and vitamins while reducing the amount of saturated fat and minimizing the chance of animal-borne illnesses (such as salmonella and E. coli) contaminating the meat.

The No. 1 question dietician Samantha Cassetty receives is about the healthiness of these meat alternatives.

“People are really curious about them,” Cassetty said. “They understand there is an environmental impact to red meat, but more importantly I think that people are willing to make trades if they think that it is a healthier product.”

She agrees that the products are a sustainable and easy swap-in for meat from animals, but prefers that her clients opt for whole foods over highly processed plant-based and cell-based alternatives.

“These are manufactured foods and some of the ingredients are better than others,” Cassetty said. “It might look like meat and act like meat, but we just don’t really know what’s going to happen there.”

The Impossible Whopper is lower in calorie content, but it contains significantly more sodium than the regular Whopper as well as a myriad of other highly processed ingredients like modified food starch, cultured dextrose and soy protein isolate.

But this doesn’t mean that regular animal proteins are the healthier option.

“Industrial animal meat is treated with chemicals, and it tends to be contaminated with bacteria. I mean slaughterhouses, they’re just rank with meat contamination,” said Bruce Friedrich, the co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank for cultivated meat and plant-based meat.

Friedrich’s main issue with the meat industry is the overuse of antibiotics, which, he said, has in turn made millions of people antibiotic resistant. Last year the U.N. declared antimicrobial resistance to be a “global health emergency” that threatens the human population perhaps nearly as much as global warming.

Are meat alternatives better for the environment?

No. But they can maybe help. The Beyond Meat burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land and 90 percent less fossil fuel emissions; the Impossible Burger uses 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, and 89 percent less fossil fuel emissions than a quarter pound of regular ground beef. The statistics offer a rosy image of meat alternatives benefiting the environment in a big way.

“The pressure on the planet would be impacted in a huge and positive way,” if everyone replaced meat with plant or cell-based alternatives, Friedrich said. With the global population expected to swell to 9.7 billion by 2050, meat alternatives could be effective in creating a more sustainable food supply without forcing people to change their diet too drastically.

But it’s not the magic bullet. Marco Springmann, a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, published a paper last year in the journal Nature describing how the global diet needs to change to preserve the environment. He’s skeptical of how effective these factory-produced meat alternatives will be in changing the food system.

“Those companies make wild claims, but they don’t back that up with any independent attestment,” Springmann said. “Their claims are based on third-party potential estimates of emissions.”

Even if meat alternative companies back their products up with more studies, they don’t offer the best emissions solution. Cellular-based meat alternatives release five times the emissions as chicken, putting their emissions just under beef. Plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as chicken — which are about five times the emissions of legumes and vegetables.

Springmann recommends a flexitarian diet heavy on vegetables and legumes with a heavily reduced portion of meat. This amount of meat would equal one 100-gram burger (or 3.5 ounce) per week or choosing to consume chicken or fish just twice a week.

This heavy reduction in meat consumption presents a steep learning curve for much of the global population. But it’s not infeasible. “It’s about perspective and spices,” Springmann said.

Is fake meat economically feasible?

Alternative meat products are still more expensive than regular meat products. At Whole Foods the Beyond burger retails for around $12 a pound while regular ground beef goes for less than half that, at $5. And at Bareburger in New York, the Impossible and Beyond Meat swap-ins cost $2.95 more than the regular beef burger.

The high demand and small market makes alternative meat products available for a small sector of the world (upper-middle class and eco-conscious consumers). But Friedrich has faith that the “better product” will even out in the end against animal-sourced meat.

“Once the infrastructure has been created and once the volume goes up these products will be less expensive than their animal counterparts,” Friedrich said.

But even the most efficient process for creating hyper-processed meat alternatives is unmatched to the efficiency of growing vegetables and legumes. Conventional wisdom holds: Vegetables remain the cheapest and most sustainable option.