Beyond Meat has led a movement for creating plant-based meats to satisfy the ‘meat craving’ for those wishing to reduce or opt out of animal product use. The company, founded in 2009, went public in May with the best-performing public option in recent history. The website for Beyond Meat boasts their new, plant-based patty that “looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef without GMOs, soy, or gluten.” However, is this new era of animal-free meat really any better for our health or the environment?
Emissions from agriculture are released because carbon dioxide, a gas which contributes to warming of the environment, is released into the atmosphere when trees are cut down to create pastures. Livestock animals also release methane, another greenhouse gas, through burps and flatulence when digesting their food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock accounts for 14.5% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. Cattle (raised for beef and milk) alone produce 65% of livestock emissions.
Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford, was the co-author of a 2018 journal article published in Science examining the impact of food production across industries, from agriculture to retail. The main finding of the article was that environmental impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing evidence for the importance of a shift towards a plant-based diet in consumers. In an interview with The New York Times, he stated “avoiding meat and dairy, for the large majority of people, including Americans, is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact, not just on greenhouse gas emissions, but on land use, biodiversity loss, water pollution, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and a range of other issues…”.
Scientists are able to compare the resource cost of the Beyond-patty in comparison to a beef patty. A peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis conducted by the University of Michigan compared the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger to a ¼ lb. U.S. beef burger and found the Beyond Meat Burger to generate far less harm to environment: the results indicated that the Beyond Meat Burger uses 99% less water, generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses 93% less land, and 46% less energy in its production. Thus, the meat alternative saves in costs to the environment.
The nutritional benefits have been more controversial. Beyond Meat says its products are made by “layering in plant-based fats, binders, and fruit and vegetable-based colors and flavors using a process of heating, cooling, and pressure to create the fibrous texture of meat.” However, the nutritional benefits are lacking.
In comparing a Beyond Meat patty to another pre-prepared meat patty, Beyond Meat contains 300 mg more of sodium. This means that if you were to purchase a Beyond Meat patty at A&W, the version would have 1110 mgs of sodium alone, which is significant in reference to Health Canada’s recommended daily intake of 1500 mgs of sodium. A Beyond patty also contains 270 calories and five grams of saturated fat compared to Walmart’s Great Value Beef Burger, which contains 30 fewer calories and two more grams of saturated fat.
The Beyond Burger seeks to mirror the nutritional composition of beef while keeping the recipe plant-based. While a traditional burger patty contains just one ingredient – beef, Beyond patties contain 22 ingredients. Beyond’s contains pea protein isolate, which mimics the protein content of beef. Coconut oil and canola oil are there to parallel the fat component of beef while also containing water, salt, and the binding agent methylcellulose. The nutritional contents of the two burgers seem to be comparable, yet there have been numerous studies linking red meat to poor heart health and a higher disease risk. However, this body of research is still being contested.
Although the health benefits of the Beyond Beef burger are not as clear-cut as the reduced cost to the planet, it should not necessarily dissuade you from trying meat alternatives. After all, most people do not enjoy a burger for the health benefits: a meat-free option allows you to reduce your environmental impact while also enjoying a traditional comfort food.
- Jul 24, S. H. · C. N. · P., July 24, 2019 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: & 2019. Beyond Meat says its burgers are healthier than beef. Health experts aren’t so sure | CBC News. CBC https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/beyond-meat-burger-beef-health-risks-1.5220777 (2019).
- About. Beyond Meat -The Future of Protein(TM) https://www.beyondmeat.com/about/.
- Atkin, E. The Promise and Problem of Fake Meat. The New Republic (2019).
- Tugend, A. Is the New Meat Any Better Than the Old Meat? The New York Times (2019).
- Poore, J. & Nemecek, T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987–992 (2018).