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Plant-Based Meats May Be Good for the Environment but Bad for Your Health

Plant-based meat products are often seen as healthier than real meat. But they’re not.

The Impossible Burger, a vegan burger with heme harvested from soybean roots to look, feel, and taste like beef, as prepared by Hell's Kitchen in Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.(Image Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr)
The Impossible Burger, a vegan burger with heme harvested from soybean roots to look, feel, and taste like beef, as prepared by Hell's Kitchen in Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.(Image Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr)

Plant-based “meats” are all the range in the United States, with patties manufactured by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in high demand and going mainstream.

In August, Burger King began offering the meatless Impossible Whopper at all its locations across the United States. And it’s earned rave reviews. While vegetarian or vegan burgers have been around for decades, these new offerings, thanks to food science, are said to resemble the taste and texture of meat, especially when compared to a vegetarian burger made of beans or chickpeas.

Veganism, vegetarianism, and “flexitarianism” (eating less meat) are growing in popularity as more Americans adopt healthy lifestyles. Plant-based meats appeal in particular to flexitarians.

John Mackey, the chief executive officer of Whole Foods, is among the more vocal critics of plant-based meats. He told CNBC last month, “I don’t think to eat highly processed foods is nutritious. I think people thrive on eating whole foods.” Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietician, concurred, telling CNBC that plant-based burgers “are not necessarily healthier than beef burgers.”

Cynthia Saas, a performance nutritionist said that instead of consuming processed food, we should consume whole ingredients. Dietitian and Nutritionist Amy Gorin raised concerns about the use of coconut oil, the use of which makes Impossible’s meat more caloric and high in saturated fat. The company has altered its recipe this year, replacing coconut oil with sunflower oil.

Both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger patties have almost fifty percent more sodium content than Burger King’s standard beef patty. Their fat and caloric content are also comparable to that a beef patty. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), excess levels of sodium could put one at risk for high blood pressure, which it says is a leading risk factor for death for women in the United States. Nine out of ten Americans already consume excessive amounts of sodium, according to the AHA. Sodium-rich plant-based meats will at best keep American sodium intake at the present high rates.

While plant-based meats aren’t necessarily healthier than animal meat products, they may address the ecological and ethical concerns of many.

Livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. According to the Center for Sustainable Systems, vegan meat produces 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent less effect on water scarcity, and uses 46 percent less energy in its production as compared to the animal meat. 

And a study published earlier this year in the British medical journal The Lancet calls for a “Great Food Transformation” and recommends a shift toward a mainly plant-based diet for humans to create “sustainable food systems” that would reduce carbon emissions and improve biodiversity and water and land use.

Urooj Tarar covers South Asia and pivot states for Globely News. She previously worked for the English-language edition of Daily Pakistan.

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