Plant-based meat alternatives—products that look, taste, and even sizzle like animal meat—are having a pretty big year. The brands Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have been scoring headlines, raising impressive amounts of capital and legions of hungry, happy customers: a splashy IPO and partnerships with chains including of Carl’s Jr. and TGI Friday’s for Beyond Meat; a $ 300 million funding round and deals with the likes of Burger King and Cheesecake Factory for Impossible Burger.
You might assume that the surge in popularity of these meat-free products is driven by a rising number of vegetarians in the U.S. But the percentage of Americans that identify as vegetarian has actually ticked down from 6 to 5 percent over the past 20 years, according to Gallup polls. (The same poll only started tracking rates of veganism in 2012; they’ve risen from 2 to 3 percent since then.)
In reality, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat say that their customer bases are just as meat-loving as the general population. Impossible Foods Chief Communications Officer Rachel Konrad tells SELF that over 95 percent of people who order their burger regularly consume animal products (i.e. aren’t vegan), and that most are not strictly vegetarian either. Beyond Meat boasts similar numbers. “Purchase data from one of the nation’s largest conventional retailers showed that more than 90 percent of consumers who purchased the BeyondBurger also purchased animal protein,” Will Schafer, the company’s VP of marketing, tells SELF.
The real wonder, then, is how Impossible, Beyond, and similar companies are convincing all these meat-eaters to buy into the idea that plant-based is better, at least at some meals. Why are people who enjoy meat shelling out for these meatless products? I talked to experts and looked at research to try and find an answer.
“It seems like it’s better for me.”
Los Angeles resident Kasey L., 23, tells SELF that her family history of heart disease is what spurred her to start eating less meat. “I’m pretty healthy in general, but the amount of [red] meat I was eating was one thing that always worried me in the back of my mind,” Kasey says. “I wanted to cut back so I gave it a shot once and loved it.” While she still eats meat, she says she’s probably cut her intake by something like 20 percent thanks to the availability of Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat at restaurants and retailers.
“From what we have observed, most people choose to eat less meat for health reasons,” Ricardo San Martin, Ph.D., research director of the Alternative Meat Program at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley, tells SELF. “We suspect that people may [be turning] to new meat alternatives in an attempt to foster healthier lifestyles.”
The belief that eating less meat (particularly red meat) may be a boon for health comes from a decent amount of research connecting red meat consumption to negative health outcomes, David A Levitsky, Ph.D., a professor of Nutrition and Psychology in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the Department of Psychology at Cornell University, tells SELF. But it’s hard to say whether swapping out beef burgers for these new imitations will actually improve your health or not. The truth is, the research is pretty complicated.
For instance, a massive NIH-funded, Harvard-led study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 observing over 37,000 men and 83,000 women since 1986 and 1980, respectively, found that one additional daily serving of red meat over the course of the study was correlated with a 12 percent increase in a person’s odds of dying from any cause. Which, of course, sounds scary! But it’s important to note that the researchers did not find a causal link—proof that eating red meat directly leads to higher mortality—only an association.
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) did a comprehensive review of over 800 epidemiological studies investigating associations between red or processed meat consumption and numerous types of cancer, conducted over 20 years across a variety of countries and diets. They found that there is, indeed, a correlation between red meat consumption and risk of some cancers, but note that the mechanism isn’t clear—it may have something to do with chemicals produced during cooking or processing that are known or suspected carcinogens rather than the meat itself. They also couldn’t rule out other explanations for the association, such as chance, bias, or confounding variables (like other lifestyle and diet choices). Ultimately though, the connection was enough for them to classify red meat (meaning all mammalian muscle meat, including beef as well as veal, pork, lamb, and mutton) as “probably carcinogenic.” The correlation between red meat and cancer was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but researchers also saw associations for pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Even major medical organizations have issued recommendations to reduce our intake of red meat. For instance, the American Cancer Society (ACS) tells us to limit red and processed meat consumption to reduce colorectal cancer risk. And the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting red meat consumption (and minimizing processed meat consumption—like bacon, hot dogs, and deli slices) on the basis of saturated fat content raising cholesterol and increasing heart disease risk (another subject of confusing nutrition research).
The bottom line: Associations between red meat and poor health outcomes definitely exist and are worth considering, but the research does have its limitations. While the science may not be definitive enough to suggest that everyone should stop eating burgers altogether, for some people—especially those who are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease or certain types of cancers—choosing plant-based options over cow meat feels like a safe and doable step to potentially reduce your risk of poor health and disease. “People want to do things that are good for them,” Levitsky explains.
So how much healthier are these meatless burgers, really? While the science generally indicates that reducing red meat intake is a good idea, whether or not the meat alternatives we’re subbing in are actually healthier “is a separate question,” San Martin says. The answer depends on who you ask (and what you define as “healthy,” of course).
The hamburger’s meatless rivals are mostly composed of plant-based proteins and fats. “These products are being designed to mimic meat, so they contain proteins for chewiness and fats for mouthfeel,” Seattle-based Ginger Hultin, M.S., R.D.N. spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the AND’s practice group for vegetarian nutrition group, tells SELF. The Impossible Burger is mostly made of soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, and sunflower oil, while the Beyond Burger, on the other hand, is mainly composed of pea protein isolate, canola oil, coconut oil, and rice protein.
Considering they are made of entirely different stuff, the nutrition facts for meat substitutes are surprisingly similar in terms of calories, overall fat, saturated fat, and protein content, to that of a regular burger. “As of now, Impossible Burger’s goal is to generally match the nutritional profile of a normal burger,” San Martin explains. (Konrad says, “Our goal is to be at least as nutritious as a burger from cows.”)
For a standard burger comparison, we’ll use the McDonald’s quarter-pounder (just the beef patty), which is 4 oz and contains 100 percent beef (not necessarily the case for all hamburgers, btw). It has: 240 calories, 18 grams total fat (including 8 grams saturated fat and 1 gram trans fat), 75 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 1 gram of carbs, 0 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of protein.
The Impossible Burger 4 oz patty contains: 240 calories, 14 grams total fat (including 8 grams of saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 9 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, and 19 grams of protein.
A Beyond Burger 4 oz patty contains: 280 calories, 20 grams total fat (including 6 grams saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 6 gram of carbs, 2 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of protein. (This info is for the Beyond Meat burgers you find in restaurants; they also sell a slightly different version in grocery stores which is pretty similar but has slightly fewer calories, fat, and carbs.)
There are noticeable differences—the plant-based options have a lot more fiber than the regular beef burger, while the regular burger has far less sodium than the plant-based options. While the overall fat and saturated fat content is really similar, you can see that beef burgers do contain a tiny bit of trans fat (that’s not unique to McDonald’s, btw). However, according to the AHA, we don’t have enough research to say whether the naturally occurring trans fats in animal products have the same harmful effects as those produced in manufacturing (like an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes). So it mostly comes down to whether you’d prefer to get your fat from an animal or plants. And at the end of the day, don’t forget that eating healthily more generally is about way more than any one thing you eat (or don’t eat), whether that’s a beef burger or a plant-based one.
What we haven’t discussed so far is the other obvious substitute for burger-lovers looking to eat less red meat: White meat alternatives, like turkey burgers and chicken breasts. Nutritionally, they look great. A 4 oz turkey burger patty contains: 7 grams total fat (including 1 gram of saturated fat), 60 mg cholesterol, 85 mg sodium, 0 gram of carbs, 0 grams of fiber, and 24 grams of protein. That’s much less fat and sodium, and more protein than either beef burgers or veggie burgers. So if you’re motivated by health reasons alone, these are a pretty good choice. The only problem? Much like the traditional veggie burgers that meat-lovers have ignored for so long, these poultry products are not sufficiently burger-like in terms of taste and texture, if that’s what you’re looking for.
“It’s better for the planet.”
“A lot of this shift towards plant-based proteins is coming from a place of wanting to have a more sustainable diet,” Kelly C. Allison, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in psychiatry and director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF. “Especially among the millennial generation, people really are becoming increasingly concerned that an animal-based diet really is more stress on the environment and climate.”
John B., 28, tells SELF he first ordered the Impossible Burger on a whim one time at New York chain Bareburger. “I’ve tried to become more conscious of how much meat I’m eating for climate change-related reasons, so I’m trying to eat a few vegetarian meals a week,” John explains. “And this seems like a good opportunity to do that.”
Exactly how great of an opportunity depends on what data you look at. But there’s no arguing that raising the cows that become our hamburgers is straining the environment, more so than any other animal product. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock industry as a whole is responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by humans. (That accounts for emissions along the entire supply chain—from the production of animal feed, the methane cows produce just by living, and the storage of their manure to the processing and transportation of the meat.) Within the sector, the beef supply chain is the biggest contributor, emitting the most GHGs per kilogram of protein produced and accounting for 41 percent of the entire livestock industry’s GHG emissions.
Beef production also taxes the planet with the mind-boggling amount of resources it requires. Every calorie of beef we consume requires 28 times as much land and 11 times as much water as the average of the other livestock products (dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs), according to a 2014 paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
So it’s not surprising that scientists are urging people to eat less meat, especially beef. One rigorous report published in the journal Nature in 2018 estimated that if the whole world population shifted to a flexitarian diet (i.e. less red meat, more plant foods) it would cut GHG emissions by 56 percent by 2050. Researchers concluded, “GHG emissions cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets.” Another study published in Science in 2018 projected that the global population moving to a vegan diet—specifically, replacing animal proteins with vegetable proteins—would result in a 19 percent reduction in arable (farmable) land use, 49 percent reduction in GHG emissions, and a 19 percent reduction in freshwater use. But we don’t need to all go full-vegan to reap some benefits. The study also calculated the effects of replacing half of the animal products we consume with vegetable equivalents, and found that this scenario would still make a huge difference, achieving 67 percent of the land use reduction and 71 percent of the GHG reductions of the previous scenario.
But those are theoretical scenarios imagining the impact of entire populations making drastic shifts in dietary patterns—a pretty lofty, idealistic goal at this point. Yes, producing less red meat overall is the general goal. Measuring the actual impact of swapping to burger alternatives specifically, though, is tricky. And practical questions like how many people need to switch to these products to have a tangible effect on the environment is unclear. If only a relatively small percentage of the population buys them, is it enough to make any kind of meaningful difference in the current strain on our environment?
What we can say right now is that on a burger per burger level, these meatless options do require fewer resources and produce fewer GHGs. Impossible Foods commissioned its own study with the help of environmental sustainability consulting group Quantis. They found that the Impossible Burger requires 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, 89 percent fewer GHG emissions, and 92 fewer aquatic pollutants than a beef burger. And an independent study authored by researchers at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan found that the Beyond Burger generates 90 percent less GHG emissions, and requires 46 percent less non-renewable energy, 99 percent less net water use, and 93 percent less net land use to produce than a regular burger.
By the way: Tied into some people’s concerns about the environment are those about animal welfare. “It seems that some people are growing more squeamish about the state of factory farming and animal welfare in the American food system,” San Martin says. But concern about the inhumane treatment of animals seems to be more predominant among people who already identify as vegetarian or vegan, in Hultin’s experience, given it’s such a strongly held conviction—and less common among the current wave of omnivores buying these products.
“I’m just not ready to go veg yet.”
Committed vegans have their bean burgers, and some percentage of die-hard carnivores will never give up their beef burgers. But in between those poles is a large swath of Americans who worry a reasonable amount for their health and for the planet. The people who care just enough to make a small modification in their behavior (selecting the tastily convincing alternative burger on the menu), but aren’t at the point where they’re ready and willing to stop eating meat entirely. (At least, not yet.)
Impossible and Beyond Burgers are presenting this large portion of the population with an incredibly convenient and comfortable—albeit more expensive—stepping stone. “The familiar nature of alternative meat products like the Beyond or Impossible Burger could be a less intimidating entry point to lower-meat diets for staunch meat eaters,” San Martin explains. “They seem to be an easy way for people to make the shift [toward] a vegetarian diet. It’s one way they can do it without having to give up their meat,” Levitksy says.
Let’s be real: Wholesale lifestyle changes, like going vegetarian or vegan, can be incredibly difficult (and a hard sell). Many Americans have grown up eating meat. And if you’ve ever tried to break any long-held habit, you know that baby steps and good substitutes can be a huge help.
For instance, while Kasey was concerned about the possible health risks associated with eating a lot of red meat, “I wasn’t at the point that I was going to actually completely give up meat and go vegetarian or vegan.” For her, the Impossible Burger feels like a “cheat,” she says: ”a way of being more healthy and feeling better about that without feeling like I had to give something up or make some big decision.” She’s hopeful about going “full-veg” in the future. John is less optimistic. “I don’t think it would ever completely replace burgers for me,” he admits. “But if more restaurants add it to their menu, I’ll continue to order it.”
Ultimately, it’s not yet clear the impact that these alternative meat products will have on our health, both at the individual or population level. And while their environmental footprint is significantly smaller, predicting the role of these meat alternatives in the big picture depends on other variables, like how many people actually stop eating beef because of them.
One thing’s for sure, though. “We don’t see signs of the meat industry disappearing anytime soon,” San Martin says. At the same time, he adds, neither are the problems associated with that industry—or our appetite for a palatable alternative. And maybe, for most meat-eaters out there, whether or not their new burgers of choice will actually help prevent illness and save the planet is less important than the fact that choosing an alternative makes them feel like they are making a positive change.