The effect of the paradigm shift from meat to plant-based meat-alternative foods has been so powerful that red meat consumption has declined steadily and significantly over the past few decades, as reported by Dr. Charles Godfray, from the University of Oxford, and his colleagues in a 2018 report. This is partly due to the rising concern of health-related issues caused by meat-based foods. These issues include obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.
In a 2015 study, it was found that processed foods such as hot dogs, bacon, and sausages are carcinogenic to humans, leading to colorectal cancer. Unprocessed red meats are also found to be carcinogenic. While there are risks and disadvantages associated with meat-based foods (processed and unprocessed), there are benefits associated with plant-based protein sources such as lentils, whole grains, soy, nuts, legumes, and other foods that make up plant-based protein diets.
Dr. Marta Guasch-Ferré and her team of researchers have revealed that replacing animal-based diets with plant-based ones reduces levels of total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. In a 2019 study conducted by Dr. Yan Zheng and his colleagues, the shift from animal-based to plant-based foods has been associated with lower level risks of chronic diseases and mortality.
It is important to note the difference between the natural plant-based foods and plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) that are artificially produced. PBMAs are artificially designed products derived from plant sources that are used to mimic the taste of the real meat.
In a 2019 report, Dr. Frank and his colleagues found that PBMAs can reduce the risk of obesity and other diseases because they have zero cholesterol and lower saturated fat compared to meat. However, they have higher fat than pure plant-based foods. PBMAs have lowered the risk of obesity and other diseases but one question has yet to be answered: Can PBMAs completely replace meat-based foods given their nutritional benefits over meat?
There is still a lot of research that has to be done on this topic. According to Frank and his colleagues, there is no evidence yet that PBMAs can provide a significant health benefit over meat-based foods based on just the nutritional differences. This is a concern because PBMAs such as burger patties are consumed in most fast food places where other unhealthy foods like French fries and sugary drinks are also consumed at the same time.
There are other concerns as well. Some of these products have high amounts of heme, an iron-containing compound that is believed to be what makes meat taste like meat, which increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
While considering the importance of human health, the environment is an equally important factor to consider when talking about PBMAs. Meat-based foods are responsible for contaminating natural resources including rivers, streams, and drinking water. According to Frank, the raising of livestock can lead to the depletion of forests and increase greenhouse gas emissions. PBMAs have played a much better role here because they have contributed significantly in maintaining natural resources and sustaining the environment.
Beyond Meat (a company that produces beyond meat burgers with patties that are PBMA) conducted a recent assessment by er And Keolein which shows that their burger generates 90 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions and requires 46 per cent less energy, 93 per cent less land-use, and 99 per cent less water to produce the burger as compared to industrial meat production. While this shows that the PBMA burger has fewer harmful environmental effects, the validity of these results still needs to be verified. Nevertheless, these burgers are already being served by fast food chains such as A&W and Tim Hortons. Beyond Meat’s burger is even served in some grocery stores across Canada and the U.S.
Overall, PBMAs have been found to play some role in improving human health and environmental sustainability. However, there is still no evidence that shows these foods can totally substitute plant-based foods. Moreover, changes in the nutritional value of these foods due to rapid technology innovations and ongoing research in laboratories has posed a new challenge.