Is the Tide Turning Against Plant-Based Meat?

In the larger national conversation around meat alternatives, there are three main advantages that plant-based meat has over animal products: it’s better for the environment, it’s better for consumers, and it’s more humane (since no animals are killed).

As it turns out, two of those three selling points may be a little less accurate than many shoppers believe, and responses to this information have been mixed. John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods and a devoted vegan, has been quoted as saying “some of these [brands] that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods.”

Dietician Alissa Rumsey told CNBC that while plant-based burgers like Beyond Meat were fine to eat, they were ultimately not really any healthier than traditional red meat. Some have likened it to a kind of junk food – after all, were burgers ever really meant to be healthy? When ordering an Impossible Whopper from Burger King, it’s unlikely that most consumers are inspired to turn down a side of french fries in favor of apple slices.

As for whether or not it’s better for the environment than red meat, it really depends on what the consumer is replacing. For shoppers who typically buy locally-sourced meats from family farms, their footprint is going to worsen practically any time they buy from a national plant-based meat producer, which has to ship its products in refrigerated trucks all over the country. For consumers who care first and foremost about emissions, buying local is the way to go. And, of course, the biggest potential impact comes from avoiding meat-type products all together – both animal and plant-based.

However, when stacked against the larger companies that dominate the meat industry, plant-based meats absolutely win out. As reported by Joseph Poore, a researcher on the subject at Oxford, the environmental impact of transporting and processing plant-based meat is “insignificant” compared to the greater meat industry. According to Poore, “no other change in your lifestyle can have such a dramatically positive and cross-cutting benefit.” Greenhouse gas emissions from factory farms are still one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and a plant-based burger produces 90% less emissions and uses just 55% of the energy required to make a red meat burger.

So will any of this sway the tremendous momentum that plant-based meat companies have been experiencing? It’s difficult to say. Die-hard health zealots may find themselves turned off of plant-based meats, and it may even inspire a wider trend against national brands altogether. But for more casual consumers who were excited about how easy Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods makes the transition to a less meat-based diet, they are more likely to be grateful for what they can get. Even if it’s a little better for the environment and maybe just a little better for them – or, at least, not any worse – then it’s still a win.

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