Our choices as a consumer have major impacts on the environment and levels of greenhouse gases within our planet. Many are looking for a sustainable food option that is healthy not only for the individual, but for our planet as well. It is widely known that animal meat products contribute to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but just how high is this impact, and how do the levels of greenhouse gases produced by alternative meat products compare?
According to The Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry contributes 14.5% of all greenhouse gases produced, with beef being the largest culprit at 41% of greenhouse gas emissions for the entire meat industry (Milken Institute School of Public Health, 2019). Beef, when compared to other animal products such as dairy and poultry, needs “28 times more land and 11 times more water than the average of other livestock products” per calorie of beef consumed (Milken Institute School of Public Health, 2019). The high environmental impacts of animal products are only exacerbated when compared to their meat alternative or imitation meat counter parts. Imitation meats have surfaced recently and have been gaining popularity as a more sustainable option, and include products such as veggie burgers, and imitation bacon and chicken alternatives. A study led by Alfredo Mejia, Dr.PH. sought to find out how the greenhouse gas levels compared in the products of animal meat products versus imitation meat products.
Calculating total greenhouse gas emissions and looking particularly at carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide produced, animal products produced an exponentially higher amount of heat-trapping gases that can negatively impact the environment. According to data presented in 2016 at the American Society for Nutrition Annual Meeting, consuming an “8-ounce steak is equivalent to driving a small car for about 29 miles” whereas consuming a meat substitute can be compared to “driving the same car just three miles” (ScienceDaily, 2016). Within the study, researchers analyzed the environmental impacts of 39 different meat alternatives, noting “the amount and origin of ingredients and packaging materials, transport of raw materials, water, energy, and other inputs required to operate the factory and pack the products” to best compare imitation meats to animal meat products (ScienceDaily, 2016). From the research, it was found that animal meat products produced a substantially higher amount of CO2 emissions. Beef products produced between 9-129 kilograms of CO2 per equivalent amount, and pork and chicken produced 2-6 kilograms of CO2 per equivalent amount (ScienceDaily, 2016). When compared to meat alternatives, the average amount of CO2 produced per equivalent amount of product was much lower at only 2.4 kilograms (ScienceDaily, 2016).
This study found that meat alternative products produce ten times less greenhouse gas emissions when compared to beef products, something that should be taken into consideration for consumers wishing to lower their carbon footprint.
Of course, the importance of choosing a product that is not only good for the environment but also for our individual health is important. When choosing a meat alternative product, there are a few questions to ask yourself that may help you choose a healthier and less processed choice.
First, determine what the protein source is within the product. According to The Cleveland Health Clinic, meat substitutes that use pea protein or beans will provide you with the highest quality nutrition when compared to soy protein isolate and wheat gluten (The Cleveland Clinic, 2020). The study suggests that this difference may be attributed to the degree of processing.
Next, determine how much protein the product has. Aiming for 20 grams of protein per meal is a great benchmark to strive for, and a product with 10-15 grams of protein will be a great starting point when paired with other sides (The Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
Lastly, it has been pointed out that meat alternatives have a higher sodium and saturated fat content when compared to animal products. Producers commonly utilize palm oil or coconut oil within imitation meat products to mimic the texture of ground beef, both of which have a high saturated fat content (Hultin, 2019). Be sure look for a product that has a low sodium and saturated fat content and that your overall sodium consumption does not exceed 2,300 mg/day and that you do not consume more than 22g of saturated fat per day, if following a 2,000 calorie/day diet. (The Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
Purchasing tofu, tempeh, beans and lentils all provide ample amounts of protein and nutrition, and are easy to season yourself without the added sodium and saturated fat content that other meat alternatives may contain (The Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
Meat alternatives are an amazing substitution for those wishing to lower their carbon footprint, and should the right products be chosen, for those wishing to live a healthier life as well. Lowering our carbon footprints may seem daunting at first, but through small changes in our diets, a larger impact can be seen within our planet and our overall health.
- "Are Meat Substitutes Healthy?" Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. October 09, 2020. Accessed January 28, 2021. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-meat-substitutes-healthy/.
- "Choosing Meat Alternatives That Are Healthy and Sustainable." Resources. October 28, 2019. Accessed January 28, 2021. https://onlinepublichealth.gwu.edu/resources/meat-alternatives-health-sustainability/.
- Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO. "Meat Substitutes - Today's Dietitian Magazine." Today's Dietitian. June 2019. Accessed February 09, 2021. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0619p18.shtml.
- "Quantifying the Environmental Benefits of Skipping the Meat." ScienceDaily. April 04, 2016. Accessed January 28, 2021. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160404170427.htm.