Why So-Called Fake Meat Is Actually Better for Nature Than the Real Thing

"Fake meat" has long been used as an insult to the alternative protein market but in reality natural meat is far worse for the planet.

image of plant-based burger - fake meat

Explainer Climate Food

Words by

The cost of the meat on our plates is massive — billions of farm animals slaughtered each year and an enormous toll on the planet. Our food system makes up more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with most of the pollution coming from cattle, both the methane burps and huge swaths of land used for pasture and feed crops. Over a decade ago, a handful of startup companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat began working on better-tasting alternatives, reverse-engineering beef burgers to remake them with plants and innovative ingredients like heme. Yet some critics aren’t fans — and they deride these foods by calling them “fake meat” — an argument that suggests the alternative of breeding animals by the billions is somehow the more natural option. When we take a closer look at “fake meat” and compare it to what happens on factory farms, it’s clear what the meat industry calls “natural” is, in fact, destroying the very nature so essential to our health, and the health of the planet.

What Is Fake Meat?

Alternative or “fake” meats are actually pretty similar to real meat, or at least that’s the idea. They have a similar taste, texture and, in some cases, smell. The difference is they’re not made from slaughtered animals but prepared with alternative ingredients like pea or mushroom protein, or grown from animal cells without harming the animal.

The plant-based meat industry is currently worth $1.4 billion in the U.S. alone — and while sales have plateaued after several years of exponential growth, the field experienced an impressive rise while just a fraction of the size of the traditional meat industry. 

Why Is Fake Meat Called That?

There are no federal regulations governing use of the term “plant-based” or any other alternative proteins for that matter, though the USDA recently approved two “cell-cultivated” chicken product labels. Companies in the field are opting for names designed to appeal to their target market, which is not vegans or vegetarians but people who still eat meat but are willing to replace at least some with a more sustainable alternative.

What Is Fake Meat Made Of?

Fake meat can be divided into two main categories: plant-based meat and what is sometimes called lab-grown or cultivated meat. Plant-based meat is made from plant proteins like soy protein, pea protein and wheat protein. The taste of meat is reasonably straightforward to replicate, but replicating the texture can be a greater challenge. Soy protein, for example, starts off with a globular protein structure. To emulate the texture of conventional meat, manufacturers must create turn that globular protein into something fibrous, which they do by first heating or exposing the protein to an acid, then running it through an extruder, and finally adding a binder like xanthan gum to give it structure.

Lab-grown meat is made by removing stem cells from animals and growing them into a piece of meat by “feeding” the cells, sometimes adding plant-based ingredients to the mix for texture. Although lab-grown meat are made from animals and can’t be considered vegan, the process requires significantly less animal suffering and a much smaller carbon footprint than beef. 

Is Fake Meat Healthy?

Whether an alternative meat is healthier than the original depends on what you are replacing and your individual nutritional needs. As a whole, plant-based meats have many advantages over animal meats, with some lower in saturated fats and higher in fiber.

Fake Meat Versus Real Meat: Nutrition

When comparing the nutrition of plant-based and animal meats, an important factor to look at is their saturated fat content. Although fats are a necessary part of a healthy and balanced diet, consuming large amounts of saturated fat can increase levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and increase the risk of coronary heart disease and strokes. Saturated fats are found in high quantities in red meat, but are usually present in smaller amounts in plant-based meat products. One plant-based source of saturated fats to watch out for is coconut oil

Some plant-based meats are higher in fiber. Eating high-fiber foods can help aid digestion, lower blood cholesterol levels and control blood sugar levels and appetite, which can help with weight management. 

On the other hand, some plant-based meat products contain high quantities of sodium, and others may not contain enough vitamin B12. Although some manufacturers add this nutrient to their fake meat products, others do not. But this can be rectified by taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Still in its early stages of development, the full nutritional value of lab-grown meat is difficult to ascertain. Yet because these meats are grown from just a few cells, there could be the potential to manipulate their growth and nutritional makeup to create an even healthier alternative to animal meat.

Is Fake Meat Better for the Environment?

Calculating the environmental impact of an alternative meat product requires a closer look at the protein source, energy, water and land required for growing and manufacturing. The animal agricultural industry is responsible for roughly 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of global freshwater usage, and is a key driver of deforestation, and alternative proteins are by and large a fraction of the impact of regular meat. 

Fake Meat Versus Real Meat: Environmental Impacts

Alternative meats made from plant proteins have a far lower environmental impact. Their specific carbon footprint depends on which plant-based protein and how they are processed, but the bottom line is greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based meats are between 30 and 90 percent lower than their animal meat competitors. 

Animal agriculture also uses vast amounts of water that are not required to make fake meat. Plant-based proteins reduce water use by between 72 and 99 percent.

A large-scale shift toward plant-based protein sources would also curb the devastating effects of deforestation. Growing soy for human food rather than for animal feed and meat would reduce deforestation by a whopping 94 percent.

Lab-grown meat isn’t yet produced at a large enough scale to know for sure its environmental impact. Several studies suggest cultivated meat can be made with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef and may be able to beat the emissions of pork and chicken if manufactured with renewable energy. According to one estimate, lab-grown beef can be produced with 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy and 99 percent less land than conventional beef.

How Often Should You Eat Fake Meat?

Most health experts suggest you limit meat intake to 300 grams per week due to their health and environmental impacts. Plant-based meats, on the other hand, tend to contain less saturated fat and have a much smaller environmental impact. On the other hand, the healthiest plant-based proteins remain legumes like lentils and chickpeas, as well as nuts and seeds. 

Will Fake Meat Replace Real Meat?

Consumers consider taste, price and convenience some of the most important factors when making their choices at the supermarket. Many alternative protein advocates say once the price of so-called fake meat comes down, more shoppers will be willing to replace their conventional meat with plant-based or, eventually, cultivated meat. However, some researchers argue that too much emphasis has been placed on taste, price and convenience, and that other factors such as the cultural importance of meat will be harder to overcome.  

What to Keep in Mind When Shopping for Meat Alternatives

Many health and environmental experts agree that a plant-rich diet is the most sustainable for both you and the planet. Check if what you are eating is nutrient-dense and not high in salt, fat or sugar, and to try as much as possible to make sure that your food comes from environmentally friendly and ethical supply chains. 

What Are the Best Fake Meat Products?

There is an ever-increasing range of alternative meat products available, and just like with any other food everyone has their own favorite. These so-called fake meat products are a small selection of the plant-based meats available on the market today.

Impossible Burgers

The Impossible Burger is a popular plant-based alternative to conventional burgers. According to Impossible Foods, the key to the burger’s meaty taste and texture is a heme protein also known as soy leghemoglobin. 

365 Meatballs

These meatballs are made from soy protein and sunflower seed oil. Sold by Whole Foods, 365 Meatballs are part of a range of low-cost own-brand plant-based meat products.

Beyond Meat Brats

Beyond Meat Brats are sausages made from pea protein, faba bean protein and rice protein, alongside other plant-based ingredients. They have a convincing texture and with the right toppings can be mistaken for real meat sausages.

Field Roast Smoked Apple and Sage Sausages

These Field Roast Smoked Apple and Sage Sausages provide an impressive 26 grams of protein per serving. They’re made with Yukon gold potatoes, dried apples, sage and other plant-derived ingredients.

Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders

Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders are an ideal plant-based alternative to chicken tenders. According to one review, these faux chicken tenders have “a terrific flavor and texture,” and even have the potential to please meat-eaters.

Good Catch Tuna

If you’re looking for a fish alternative, take a look at the Good Catch brand. Good Catch Tuna contains algae oil for omega-3 fatty acids and is made from a blend of plant proteins including pea, soy, chickpea and lentil. 

Upton’s Naturals Chorizo Seitan

A great alternative to ground sausage, Upton’s Naturals Chorizo Seitan is low in fat and based on wheat gluten.

Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Shrimp

Sophie’s Kitchen Shrimp is another seafood alternative made from purely plant-based ingredients. It’s made from konjac root and is said to make a convincing alternative to the real thing.

Tofurky Oven Roasted Deli Slices

As its name suggests, the Tofurky brand provides meat alternatives based on tofu and other plant-based ingredients. These Oven Roasted Deli Slices are low in fat but contain 13 grams of protein per serving.

The Bottom Line

Replacing animal meats with plant-based meat alternatives is a great way to minimize your environmental impact. Though critics may deride these products as “fake meat,” the reality is there are a huge range of healthy and nutritious meat alternatives out there to help you do that.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »