New plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) offer a sustainable food choice that manufacturers claim is accessible, enjoyable, and affordable, according to an article published in JAMA. However, the researchers contend that more evidence is required to understand the potential benefits of these products in promoting healthy dietary patterns among consumers.
The researchers sought to explore whether PBMAs produced by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — the 2 largest companies creating products in this space — may be considered part of a healthy, low-carbon diet (designed to reduce greenhouse gases due to methods of production, processing, preparation, packaging, transport, and waste of food) while minimizing reliance on industrial meat production.
The researchers identified a handful of studies discussing the environmental effects of PBMAs vs industrial beef production as well as their effects on human health. Beyond Meat recently commissioned a Life Cycle Assessment that compared the production of Beyond Burger with burgers made from US beef. The results of this study showed that Beyond Burger generated 90% less greenhouse gases emissions and required 46% less energy, 99% less water, and 93% less land.
Studies on the impact of PBMAs on human health have been fairly limited; however, randomized clinical trials measuring levels of total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in participants showed that a shift from red meat to whole food, plant-based protein sources such as nuts and legumes is associated with a reduction in total cholesterol and a lowered risk for chronic disease and mortality. However, the new PBMAs, unlike whole foods, are highly processed. The researchers note that in a recent short-term controlled-feeding study, diets high in ultraprocessed foods were associated with excess caloric intake and weight gain along with the loss of nutrients and phytochemicals found in plant whole foods.
The researchers suggest that rigorously designed, independently funded studies are needed to further understand whether PBMAs can provide a low-carbon protein source that also offers a significant health benefit. Future studies should aim to clarify potential nutrient differences between PBMAs and meat, as well as explore the impact of potentially harmful PBMA ingredients such as the heme iron used to enhance the meaty flavor of the Impossible Burger. In addition, research should focus on how the context of PBMA consumption (which is largely in a fast-food setting) affects health and whether substituting PBMAs for red meat improves overall diet quality.
The researchers concluded that although PBMAs have a lesser environmental impact than industrial meat production, there is currently not enough evidence to indicate that PBMAs are a substitute for healthy diets rich in plant foods with little industrial processing.
Hu FB, Otis BO, McCarthy G. Can plant-based meat alternatives be part of a healthy and sustainable diet? [published online August 26, 2019]. JAMA. doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.13187