Are meat substitutes good for us?

Almost 20 per cent of Australians say they are trying to reduce their consumption of meat. Add these ‘meat reducers’ to the existing cohort of vegans and vegetarians, and over a quarter of us are committed to avoiding eating animals, say researchers from the University of Adelaide.

However, the average Australian still consumes 94 kilograms of meat per year, nearly three times the global average.

Meat reducers, mostly motivated by health concerns, are propelling a surge in plant-based meat sales.

A spokesperson for Woolworths told The Guardian it had seen “double-digit growth for plant-based meat alternatives in our stores over the past year, and every indication tells us this category will only continue to grow”.

Coles told Nine that sales of its Beyond Meat and Alternative Meat Co products had seen “double-digit growth week-on-week” in early 2021.

“The share price of the US-owned Beyond Meat rose 475 per cent in the first month since its initial public offering in May 2020.”

Fast-food behemoths KFC, McDonald’s and Hungry Jacks have developed ‘fake meat’ offerings, and the number of plant-based meat products on Australian grocery shelves doubled in 2020.

Research co-author Professor Wendy Umberger says there’s a “growing awareness” that we don’t need to eat as much meat. Many people say they “feel lighter and have more energy” when they cut down meat consumption, she told Nine.

Read more: The benefits of going meat-free at least once a week

Meat reducer Tasman Stacey is typical of converts motivated by the health of the planet, as well as themselves.

“I’m not trying to not eat meat because eating meat is wrong,” Mr Stacey told The Guardian.

“We are eating less meat because it’s not sustainable. There’s enough resources on this world for everyone to live a comfortable and dignified life, but the way we distribute our resources globally at the moment is not sustainable, and we need to change that or get very used to the hordes of people being murdered at the border trying to escape climate catastrophe.”

However, meat alternatives can be fraught. Nine’s Cara Walters says the health benefits of the products are “debatable”.

“Meat alternatives may be promoted as a healthy option, but experts warn the products are highly processed and should at best be eaten occasionally.

“A study by the George Institute for Global Health in Melbourne in 2019 with the Heart Foundation, which looked at processed meat alternatives such as meat-free bacon and meat-free sausages, found some products contained up to half a day’s worth of salt in one serve.”

They can also be high in fats and sugar.

“A vegan hot dog is no better for you than a meat one; you are still getting all these different hidden ingredients in the packet,” says Dr Nick Fuller, an obesity expert from Sydney University.

“Whenever you are buying something in a packet, it has usually gone through a heavy manufacturing process. You will see a long list of ingredients on the packet – some of them contain 20 to 50 ingredients.”

Read more: Is lab-grown meat good for animals?

Stephen Marks, founder of the Mexican food chain Guzman y Gomez, is bucking the trend to provide fake meat alternatives on his menu. He provides more vegetarian options instead.

“If you want to eat vegetables, eat vegetables, if you want to eat less meat, have less meat,” he says.

Heavy meat eaters tend to be older men with lower education levels, while meat reducers are more likely to be educated women, says Prof. Umberger.

Globally, China’s “ravenous” demand for meat is driving environmental damage in places such as Brazil, the world’s biggest meat exporter. Land clearing in the Amazon and Cerrado regions of Brazil is having “a devastating impact on global heating”.

Concurrently, reports that “2020 could well have been the dawn of alternative protein in China”.

Imitation meat start-ups are following the lead of McDonald’s, which has introduced five pea and soy-based, zero-cholesterol luncheon meat substitutes.

But in America, old habits die hard. Despite continual reports that the international livestock industry is responsible for 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, American meat consumption overall is on the rise.

Have you reduced your consumption of meat? Is your diet dictated by your health or the health of the planet? Have you tried any meat alternatives?

Read more: Meat replacement dinners

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