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Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

Article and audio introduction by Samantha Kennedy, Family and Consumer Sciences

To meat or not to meat? That is the question.

Over the last couple of years, plant-based meat alternatives have become increasingly popular. They have even become part of the regular menu offerings at a national fast food chain. Why the sudden surge in popularity? There are a couple of reasons.

First of all, plant-based meats are widely considered to be healthier. But are they really? According to Harvard University, plant-based meats have less fat than traditional red meats and contain no cholesterol. Both of these characteristics are definitely linked to a lower risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. However, plant-based meats are much higher in sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure.

photo of frozen hamburger patties

Many plant-based meat alternatives are created to look at taste just like these real beef hamburger patties. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy, UF/IFAS Extension)

The plant-based meats of today have come a long way from the meat alternatives of the past. Products such as tofu and “veggie burgers” were two of just a few meat alternatives available to consumers who preferred not to eat actual meat. Now, however, the variety of plant-based meat alternatives has greatly expanded, offering consumers a cornucopia of products that appeal to many palates.

Another reason why plant-based meat alternatives have grown in recent popularity is the fact that they mimic real meat much more than ever before, in both flavor and texture. Many plant-based meat products have also been developed to be “juicy” just like a real beef burger, using a process that includes adding red heme (the stuff that gives real meat its “meaty” flavor) from the roots of soy plants to the product to make it taste meatier. Other brands’ plant-based meat products align plant proteins into the same configuration as animal proteins to impart a meaty texture, then use things such as pomegranate and beet juice to make it look “bloody.”

The bottom line is that to turn plant proteins into a product that mimics animal-based meat takes a lot of science and technology. While that is not inherently bad – many of the foods we have eaten for decades are produced using science and technology – the fact that these foods are “highly processed” is a drawback for many consumers.

Another benefit cited by many proponents of plant-based meat alternatives is that plant-based products are better for the environment.  They argue that animal agriculture harms the environment through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as well as the consumption of more resources than plant agriculture.

A study commissioned by one of the companies that produces plant-based meats showed that their plant-based burgers generate 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, and require 46% less energy, 99% less water, and 93% less land use than a burger made from U.S. beef. That being said, there is still a lot of independent research that needs to be done to really confirm these environmental benefits.

What about the price? Pound for pound, plant-based meats are more expensive than traditional meat. Much of this has to do with market share: less availability, higher price. Current prices show that plant-based meats are up to 2.5 times more expensive per pound than real meat. However, as plant-based meat alternatives become more popular, their price has begun to come closer to that of real meat. As the price lowers, more people may be willing to try it, which would push the price down even further.

The jury is still out on the benefits of plant-based meat vs. real meat. While there are certainly nutritional benefits to eating a plant-based diet, animal-based foods can also provide important nutrients to our diet. In the end, the choice to switch to plant-based meat alternatives is an individual one.

For more information about this and other nutrition topics, please contact Samantha Kennedy, Family and Consumer Sciences agent, at (850) 926-3931.

UF/IFAS is an Equal Opportunity Institution.