3 min read (estimated)

The demand for plant-based meat substitutes continues to grow globally as meat, an important nutrient source particularly protein, has become a major driver of global environmental change in terms of human health, greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, animal welfare and directions for breeding. As meat substitutes come in different forms including burgers, sausages, chicken, and pulled pork; soy, wheat, beans, mushrooms, and lentils are among the most common bases and many contain blends of nuts, seeds, and whole grains. In recent times, there has been a burst of innovation in developed countries involving new purely plant-based alternative products such as 3D printed plant-based meat, mycoproteins, and cultured meat.

Sustainability has emerged as a significant focus across the food chain based on four dimensions; ecological, health, social and economic. Based on FAO assessment, approximately 15% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production. Furthermore, there has been a 58% increase in global meat consumption from 1998 to 2018, which is expected to increase further (Agricultural Commodities Report, 2019). Meat is often over-consumed in developed nations and observational research has associated the high consumption of processed and red meat to increased risk of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and death. Thus, the emphasis that a significant transformation of the protein system is essential to achieving climate change targets and sustainable development goals (SDGs) has prompted dietary guidelines to encourage the consumption of protein-based foods in different ways. The rise in consumer demand and acceptance of meat substitutes are also driven by ethical considerations, attitudes, and beliefs towards the products, willingness to try new foods, shortage of animal protein, and several outbreaks linked to meat contamination.

The advantages of using meat substitutes range from low saturated fat content since meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, higher fibre-based ingredients, dietary diversity, food safety, and positive environmental outcomes. A meat-based diet requires a significantly greater amount of environmental resources per calorie compared to a plant-based diet. Meat substitutes may boost the intake of antioxidants and fibre although they often do not have comparable protein content as meat. Furthermore, the consumption of meat alternatives significantly reduces the risk of food contamination. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified foods of animal origin to be more likely associated with foodborne illnesses and food poisoning.

While many benefits exist for eating meat alternatives, there are also some disadvantages. Vitamin B12 is one of the major nutrients found in meat and it is usually absent or in trace quantity in meat substitutes. Creating meat substitutes with the same nutritional value as meat requires a high level of processing, a meat substitute might, therefore, offer little nutrients and they are known to have higher sodium and saturated fat content than meat. Another concern is the presence of food allergens such as tree nuts, wheat and soy in the substitutes and their resultant higher and varying prices. Also, the overall dietary pattern of an individual might not accommodate the consumption of a substitute and conventional meat-eaters mostly have a negative sensory perception about meat substitutes. Alternative meat products are already on sale, mainly in high and middle-income countries, although they only occupy a small segment of the market but have increasing investors and industry players like Beyond meat, Impossible foods, Memphis meat, Phuture, and Planted responding to the meatless revolution. Regulatory agencies are now faced with the need to develop policies for the new waves of alternative proteins and associated nutritional claims since the health benefits of meat substitutes are still up for debate.

In as much as it seems like the shortage of animal proteins might be an important driver for meat substitutes in low-income countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Burundi, Zimbabwe among others, the dynamics is totally different as ‘hidden hunger’, a type of malnutrition characterized by lack of essential nutrients found in food product like meat and eggs is a more pressing issue. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, just 20 grams of animal protein per person per day can stave off malnutrition in most of the low-income countries. Therefore, the consumption of meat analogues is only like a pinch of salt in the sea in addressing the nutritional challenges faced by a significant population. There are meat substitutes that have been a significant part of the diets in these economies for years but they are yet to be accepted as a complete meat replacement aside from their cost which might make their consumption more acceptable among the affluent. Equally essential is the contribution of livestock to these economies as a source of income, employment, a means of financial security, and their role in crop fertilization and transportation. Since livestock can graze for forage and water, they are also the major economic option available in drought-prone areas which is beneficial in the face of rising global temperatures.

Clearly, we cannot rule out the fact that meat plays a crucial role in all diets across the world, in developed countries, rather than the total removal of meat from diets, energies should be directed to dietary changes among heavy meat consumers and substitutes should be evaluated to have validated health claims. Consumers need not replace meat if an alternative doesn’t offer the same or more nutritional benefit. Regulatory bodies need to also validate if non-meat products should be labelled to be associated with meat as this seems to be solely based on profitability. The development of innovations and research in both alternative and traditional proteins are also crucial. For low-income countries, where livestock rearing for meat is indispensable, meat substitution with alternative novel products will be a slow process. Hence, efforts should be geared towards enacting strategies that will improve husbandry systems, reduce livestock losses and emissions through better feeding and animal care.

Would you try cultured meat, 3D printed plant-based meat, mycoproteins or other meat alternatives?

Further Reading

  1. Baltenweck, I (2019). Alternative meat products are not the answer for poorer countries
  2. World Economic Forum (2019). Meat: the Future Series Alternative Proteins 
  3. 11 Industries Responding to the Meatless Revolution
  4. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/
  5. https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/agricultural-commodities/mar-2019/meat-consumption

Cover image copied without permission from https://www.retail-insight-network.com/comment/lab-grown-meat-2019/