A study from the University of Bath reports that plant-based dietary alternatives to animal products are better for the environment and for human health when compared with the animal products they are designed to replace.
The paper (“Plant-Based Animal Product Alternatives Are Healthier and More Environmentally Sustainable than Animal Products”) appears in Future Foods, published by Elsevier. The paper argues that because these foods are “specifically formulated to replicate the taste, texture, and overall eating experience of animal products,” they are a much more effective way of reducing demand for meat and dairy than simply encouraging people to cook vegetarian whole foods.
Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives “offer a healthier and more environmentally sustainable solution which takes into account consumer preferences and behavior,” the study concluded.
“There are increasingly strong reasons to move away from industrial animal agriculture for the good of the environment, animals, our personal health, and public health. Plant-based animal product alternatives (PB-APAs) represent a highly feasible way to reduce animal product consumption, since they address the core consumer decision drivers of taste, price, and convenience,” wrote study author Chris Bryant, PhD, a psychologist.
“PB-APAs tend to displace demand for animal products, not other plant foods, and are more able to do this compared to whole plant foods alone. This paper reviews 43 studies on the healthiness and environmental sustainability of PB-APAs compared to animal products. In terms of environmental sustainability, PB-APAs are more sustainable compared to animal products across a range of outcomes including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use, and other outcomes.
“In terms of healthiness, PB-APAs present a number of benefits, including generally favorable nutritional profiles, aiding weight loss and muscle synthesis, and catering to specific health conditions. Moreover, several studies present ways in which PB-APAs can further improve their healthiness using optimal ingredients and processing.
“As more conventional meat producers move into plant-based meat products, consumers and policymakers should resist naturalistic heuristics about PB-APAs and instead embrace their benefits for the environment, public health, personal health, and animals.”
The review examined 43 studies into the health and environmental impacts of plant-based foods, as well as consumer attitudes. One study found that almost 90% of consumers who ate plant-based meat and dairy were in fact meat-eaters or flexitarians; another found that plant-based products with a similar taste, texture, and price to processed meat had the best chance of replacing meat.
Produce lower levels of greenhouse gases
The paper also found that these plant-based products caused lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than the animal products they were replacing. One paper found that replacing 5% of German beef consumption with pea protein could reduce CO2 emissions by up to eight million tons a year. Another found that compared to beef burgers, plant-based burgers were associated with up to 98% less greenhouse gas emissions.
The report suggests that plant-based products require much less agricultural land, need less water, and cause less pollution than animal products.
Studies focusing on the healthiness of plant-based products also found they tend to have better nutritional profiles compared to animal products, with one paper finding that 40% of conventional meat products were classified as “less healthy” compared to just 14% of plant-based alternatives based on the U.K.’s Nutrient Profiling Model.
Others found that plant-based meat and dairy were good for weight loss and building muscle mass and could be used to help people with specific health conditions. Food producers may be able to add ingredients such as edible fungi, microalgae, or spirulina to plant-based foods, boosting properties such as amino acids, vitamins B and E, and antioxidants. Future innovations in processing and ingredients are likely to lead to further nutritional improvements.
“Increasingly we’re seeing how plant-based products are able to shift demand away from animal products by appealing to three essential elements consumers want: taste, price, and convenience,” noted Bryant. “This review demonstrates overwhelming evidence that, as well as being far more sustainable compared to animal products in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use, plant-based animal product alternatives also have a wide range of health benefits.
“Despite the incredible advances that plant-based producers have made over recent years, there is still huge potential to improve their taste, texture, and how they cook. There’s also enormous potential to innovate with ingredients and processes to improve their nutritional properties—for example by boosting vitamin content.”
The paper stressed that, while there are health benefits of these products compared to meat, multiple personal factors will impact health, including overall calorie consumption and exercise/activity levels. Bryant suggested that more research will now be needed to make these improvements a reality, ensuring manufacturers can make products that taste better, are healthier, and provide consumers with sustainable options that are more likely to reduce demand for meat.
For more on plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, see GEN: “Shiru Creates Sustainable and Scalable Animal-Free Ingredients for Food,” and “Scientific Challenges and Solutions for Cultured Meat Manufacturing.” Also see Environmental Research Letters (“Impact of plant-based meat alternatives on cattle inventories and greenhouse gas emissions Environmental Research Letters“), British Food Journal (“Predicting and promoting the consumption of plant-based meat“), and the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition (“Nutritional assessment of plant-based meat analogues on the Swedish market“).