New Planet

Will Plant-Based Meats Save the Planet and Our Health?

Hope springs eternal. Hype sells better than mere facts. Imagined benefits are better than objective documentation. Thus, plant-based ultra-processed foods that simulate the experience of eating meat are still enjoying a health and environmental halo. But will these plant-based meats actually help to save the planet and our health?

The Big Plant-Based Health Halo

In Advances in Nutrition almost three years ago, Elena Hemler and Frank Hu advanced the case for granting a health halo to plant-based diets:

“Compared with typical Western diets with high amounts of animal products, healthy plant-based diets are not only more sustainable, but have also been associated with lower risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.”

Thanks guys. We needed a new savior. Low-fat and low-carb diets had both fallen short of their promise to save our dietary health. So the hope plant-based diets could take their place is just what we needed.

But we note the critical verb choice – associated – that does the heavy lifting in setting up the health halo. We don’t really have definitive evidence that these marvelous diets will confer better health. Instead we have health by association. Meat has guilt by association. Which would you rather claim?

Open Questions About Planetary Health

It also turns out that these plant-based meats might not actually save the planet either. For one thing, they are not going to replace meat entirely. So Jayson Lusk and colleagues set about estimating the actual effect that the uptake of these fake meats will have on cattle inventories and greenhouse gas emissions. The answer was, not much:

“Even substantial reductions in prices of PBM alternatives are unlikely to have substantive impacts on the U.S. cattle population and emissions, suggesting the need to also pursue alternative mitigation strategies, such as innovations to reduce the methane emissions per head.”

Add to that questions about the transparency of emissions by the companies that make these alt meat products and we have some genuine doubt that they will really help to save the planet.

Eyes Wide Open, Eat It if You Like It

Let’s be clear. We doubt there’s any genuine moral or dietary superiority to be had from eating plant-based simulated meats. Eating more protein from plants is not a bad idea for all of us, though. And we should make sure that, whatever we choose to eat, we’re doing it because we enjoy it. Not stuffing it in because it’s supposed to a health or environmental halo.

Food is a great source of joy and nourishment. Please, can we not twist it into something else?

Click here for the treatise from Hemler and Hu on plant-based diet, then here and here for more about the transparency of plant-based food companies about their great virtue. For Lusk’s analysis of impact on emissions from cattle, click here.

New Planet, painting by Konstantin Yuon / WikiArt

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May 31, 2022

3 Responses to “Will Plant-Based Meats Save the Planet and Our Health?”

  1. May 31, 2022 at 6:46 am, Al Lewis said:

    This is like making ethanol from corn. Turning something into something else always requires a lot of processing and is never quite up to the original.

  2. May 31, 2022 at 8:17 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Eating bugs is a good idea too.

    • May 31, 2022 at 9:52 am, Ted said:

      If we eat bug that eat plants, does that make it plant-based?