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The average American eats more than 120 kilograms of meat per year. In general, as the wealth of a country rises, the demand for meat rises too. This trend is particularly noticeable in China, where the amount of meat eaten has exploded about 15-fold since 1960.

Eating so much meat puts pressure on animals, people and the planet. Beyond the obvious environmental impact of animal production, there are serious health concerns associated with excessive consumption as well. A study that followed 475,000 men and women in the UK for 8 years examined associations of meat intake with risk of 25 common health conditions. They found that higher meat consumption was associated with higher risks of several common conditions, such as diabetes and gastritis. 

It doesn’t come as a surprise that governments and NGOs around the world are encouraging reducing meat consumption and promoting meat alternatives. However, plant-based meat alternatives production is still at its initial stage and faces numerous technological challenges.

We unpacked four alternatives that provide a great and sustainable source of protein for humans – as well as animals.

Source: Nature adapted from Oxford Martin School. Meat: The Future Series — Alternative Proteins (World Economic Forum, 2019).
Four meat alternatives unpacked
Plant-based proteins 

Soy, nuts, beans, peas, and lentils are the best natural sources of non-animal proteins that have a long track record for maintaining human health and a low carbon emission footprint. Consuming these in their natural form could be the best bet for a sustainable planet and healthy body. The food industry, however, also offers the processed version of these plants in the form of meat analogues. Mushrooms, rice, lentils, soy, and wheat gluten were all treated with meat-like flavour additives making a finished product that tastes and feels like meat.

Lab-grown meats 

The emerging field of cultured meats, also known as lab-grown or cell-based meats, are meat substitutes produced by culturing animal cells in a laboratory setting. Nowadays, more than 150 companies around the world are working on cultured meat, from ground beef to steaks, chicken, pork and fish. 

However, the energy demand of cultured meat is extremely high, while land and water use for its production are low. Overall, the carbon footprint of cultured meat could be about the same as or less than that of poultry and one-tenth that of beef cattle.

It’s also worth noting that reduced antibiotic use in these products could reduce global antibiotic-resistance issues.

Insects 

Insects have also come under the spotlight over the past few years when it comes to the search for less environmentally-invasive meat alternatives.

Insects have a lower environmental footprint and can be raised using fewer resources compared to traditional livestock. To produce the same amount of protein by farming crickets, we need around six times less food than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half that of pigs and chickens. Comparing the nutritional values of edible insect species and conventional meat products, insects show a greater protein potential — 100 grams of mealworm larvae yields 25 g of protein, whereas 100 g of beef contains 20 g of protein.

Mycoprotein

Mycoprotein is a form of single-cell protein derived from fungi for human consumption. Its production uses a technique called fermentation, where harmless bacteria change the form of a certain food over time. Fungi spores are fermented along with glucose and other nutrients, resulting in a doughy mixture with a meat-like texture. The most well-known brand of mycoprotein available to consumers is Quorn. Quorn products are made from Fusarium venenatum and are marketed in various formats as meat or chicken alternatives.

While it is considered a high-quality meat-free protein source, Quorn tends to offer highly processed products.

While some alternatives are better than others, in general, all meat alternatives could lighten the burden on the planet. As all these options get more widespread and available, having a sustainable and nutritious diet should be easier than ever before. Yet, it seems the desire to reduce carbon footprints has been overtaken by a love of meat. At least for now.

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