Fake meat showdown: Which are the healthiest and greenest meat substitutes?
Meat substitutes are everywhere. But just how healthy and climate friendly are they really?
Not all that glitters is gold. And not all that’s vegetarian is green — or healthy. This article drills through the hype, and scrutinizes the popular meat substitutes of today. Who are the climate and health winners?
What is tofu?
Tofu is the OG of meat substitutes. There's nothing new about it — it was invented around 2,000 years ago in ancient China. Made from soybeans, or rather; the coagulated milk of soybeans (yum), this food has nourished everyone from warring dynasties to hipster vegans alike.
Is tofu healthy?
It’s very healthy. And gluten free. While the term ‘superfood’ is a bit inflationary, tofu is a fair candidate. It packs a decent amount of protein along with, impressively, all nine essential amino acids you find in meat — plus some bonus nutrients and minerals. But it’s not all fun. Eating tofu isn’t recommended for people with poor thyroid gland function, a history of kidney stones, or women with estrogen sensitivity.
Is tofu good for the environment?
Critics of tofu claim that soy farming uses a lot of land, and point to deforestation in the Amazon as proof. But the fatal flaw in this logic is that almost 80% of soybean production goes to feeding livestock — where it takes 10g of soy protein to make only 2g of meat. So, ironically, if you’re strident against soy deforestation, swapping meat for tofu is a pretty effective solution.
Generally, if soybeans are fed directly to humans, instead of through animals, the climate wins. The carbon footprint of tofu ideally sits around 10% that of chicken. But, this can rocket to 200% if that tofu comes from deforested land, says the Carbon Trust. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that buying organic helps here. What’s more important is origin. Avoid tofu from regions with low protection against deforestation, like Brazil.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh, another soy-based food, is what happens when you take fermented soybeans and compress them into a cake. It has a vaguely nutty flavor and chewy texture. These qualities have seen it replace meat for hundreds of years in South East Asia — long before it appeared at your local food truck.
Is tempeh healthy?
Yep. Like its cousin tofu, tempeh has a rich nutrient profile. But it also boasts double the protein, bringing it to protein parity with beef, but slightly less than chicken. While tempeh is naturally gluten free, many store-bought versions contain additives that definitely aren't.
Vegans beware: Both tofu and tempeh include little to no vitamin B12 — an essential nutrient that your body needs, but can’t produce itself. So you’ll need to get that elsewhere.
Is tempeh good for the environment?
As a soy product, tempeh shares an environmental impact with tofu. Which is to say; pretty light, depending on its origin. Gram for gram, tempeh production emits 94% less CO2 than beef, and 62% less than chicken. But unlike tofu, tempeh is often sold with added flavors or ingredients, which may bulk the carbon footprint. Still, this isn’t likely to make a big difference.
What is seitan?
While seitan sounds like the hot newcomer of the group, it’s almost as old as tofu. This wheat gluten was invented by Buddhist monks back in 6th century China. Those monks were presumably delighted with the chewy texture, as well as its ability to soak up sauces — and the meat substitute has endured to this day.
Is seitan healthy?
It can be. Seitan is high in protein — containing roughly as much as meat, while staying low in carbs and fat. But its protein profile is incomplete: missing some of the essential amino acids of meat and tofu. Seitan is also processed. It’s a looong way removed from the wheat it originally was. As such, it should be sprinkled over a diet rich in whole foods; fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. Also, being 100% wheat gluten, it’s basically kryptonite for anyone with gluten sensitivity.
Is seitan good for the environment?
Yes! Researchers analyzed the carbon footprint of different proteins, and calculated that seitan has a footprint around 130x smaller than beef. Amazingly, they also claim it has a much lower footprint than tofu, although it’s unclear what tofu they compare against. In any case: Seitan is a very strong climate choice.
Fake meat: the new school (Beyond Meat and Impossible)
If you invent a time machine, go back a few years and buy shares in an LA startup called Beyond Meat. They are, along with Impossible Foods, the two gorillas of today's fake meat industry. Both have swept the public conscience through retail partnerships and celebrity endorsements. And as their signature products, both aim to replace the citadel of American meat culture: the hamburger.
Is fake meat healthy?
Kind of. But it’s basically lab food. So while these products boast ‘natural ingredients’, ultra-processing destroys much of their inherent goodness. With that said, they’re both fantastic sources of protein, although they derive it from different sources (Beyond Meat from pea protein isolate, Impossible from soy). And like meat, they contain vitamin B12 and other goodness. The latest version of both burgers are also gluten free, for those concerned.
Nevertheless, simulating the meat-eating ‘experience’ means a comparable amount of salt and saturated fat. So while these vegan meats may be slightly healthier than their real counterparts, they should still be eaten in moderation. Check the label to see if and how they fit into your diet.
Is fake meat good for the environment?
Friendlier than meat, for sure. Beyond Meat often points at a flattering 2018 study, which shows that their burger uses much less water and energy compared to a real one. The Impossible Burger floats on similar science. It uses 20x less land, 50x less water, and creates 12x less greenhouse gas than hamburgers — according to the nonprofit Sierra Club.
What is mycoprotein (Quorn)
Mycoprotein is the protein behind the brand Quorn. It comes from the delicious sounding 'fusarium venenatum' microfungus. Like newer vegan meats, mycoprotein is highly processed. But unlike them, Quorn is much older, and less experimental. It is the meat substitute in the UK, where it lives large in every supermarket, offering a branded alternative to almost every meat dish — from bacon to meatballs.
Is Quorn healthy?
As healthy as highly-processed food can be. Mycoprotein has a lot going on: It’s a rich protein source brimming with plenty of good 'iums' — like magnesium, potassium, selenium, and calcium. Like soy, it's also a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. And there’s some initial research connecting Quorn intake to lower cholesterol, but that’s not solid science yet.
Unlike tofu, which is usually sold raw, Quorn spans a huge range of fake meat products. This means that Quorn can be as unhealthy as the product it’s imitating. So if their sausages seem high in fat and salt, it’s because all sausages are high in fat and salt. As always — read the nutrition labels, not the marketing copy.
Finally, Quorn acknowledges that their products can trigger an allergic reaction, although they claim the likelihood is 'exceptionally low'. The data around this phenomenon is too weak for solid advice here. Not only are most cases self-reported, but experts say the cause for such a reaction could range from mould sensitivity to a hidden wheat intolerance.
(🇨🇦 If you’re Canadian and wondering what we’re talking about, Quorn didn’t pass your country’s stringent food safety standards. Make of this what you will.)
Is Quorn bad for the environment?
Not really. To their credit, Quorn is way ahead of the curve for carbon labeling. Since 2011, they’ve worked with universities to calculate their carbon footprint per product, which they now display on 60% of their line.
Their own report, a summary of research from the Carbon Trust, gives handy comparisons between Quorn and the products it aims to replace. For example, 'Quorn Mince' (ground beef) creates about a tenth the CO2 of real beef.
This is golden information for climate-conscious shoppers. Let's say you're choosing between soya and Quorn for tonight's curry. The report shows that raw Quorn has a larger (112%) carbon footprint than soya, but needs dramatically less land and water to produce. Knowledge is power.
Veggies: nature’s superhero squad
Instead of ‘plant-based’ meat, how about diving straight to the source? Humans have been eating vegetables since, well, forever. No kidding — we were roasting vegetables almost 200,000 years ago. They’re a cornerstone of nutrition, and our bodies love them.
Are vegetables healthy?
You bet. Pulses and legumes are especially useful for replacing meat. They’re buzzing with proteins and compounds that keep your body tuned, and diseases at bay. And while no single vegetable will give you complete nutrition, mixing them is an easy (and tasty) way to plug different proteins, vitamins, and minerals into your diet.
Fair warning though — some vitamins simply don’t occur in plants. So those on a veggie diet should ensure they’re getting essentials like vitamin B12 from elsewhere, such as fortified foods or certain meat substitutes. Diversity is your friend here. But failing that: supplements.
Are vegetables environmentally friendly?
Yes!! Most meat substitutes out there are processed, some more than others. At every step of this production they lose nutrients, and gain emissions. Of course, the result is often (much) greener than the equivalent in animal products, but you could also avoid the processing altogether.
When bought whole and raw, vegetables require minimal processing. And for full marks, you can buy them locally and in season to cut your climate impact to a sliver!
Our pick: veggie power
Variety is important. In life, generally, but also for a complete diet. So please, enjoy the rainbow of meat substitutes out there. All of them, when farmed responsibly, are better for the environment than meat — so you’re doing the climate (and animals) a solid with every meal.
But it’s worth remembering that fake meat, despite its many virtues, is highly-processed vegetable matter. Matter that has been seasoned, fortified, and moulded into the shape of real meat products. Soy products aren’t angels either: It takes industrial processing to turn soybeans into ready-to-cook tofu blocks.
We think there’s a strong case to limit the fake (and real) meat altogether, and gather straight from nature’s garden instead. High-protein vegetables like pulses and legumes don’t substitute meat. Rather, they offer a deeply nutritious alternative to use in a bazillion different meals, from stir fries to curries to soups. The planet is glowing with many delicious veggies — make good use of them!
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