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Health and sustainability of plant-based alternatives

Image: TheoCrazzolara, Burger party vegetarian, Pixabay, Pixabay Licence

This paper reviews 43 existing studies on the environmental sustainability and nutritional characteristics of plant-based animal alternatives (PB-APAs) compared to animal products. PB-APAs, such as Beyond Meat and Oatly milk, are foods which seek to mimic animal products. They do not include minimally processed plant-based foods such as legumes and nuts.

The study finds that PB-APAs are more sustainable than animal products across a number of categories including climate impact, water use and land use. Regarding health, it identifies several areas where PB-APAs have nutritional advantages compared to their animal-based equivalents, including lower levels of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories; and also some drawbacks, including lower (or less bioavailable) protein, iron and B12. The author argues that product development can further improve the nutritional qualities of PB-APAs in areas where they do not currently perform as well as animal products.

The author argues that PB-APAs are more likely than whole plant foods (e.g. legumes) to be used as an alternative to animal products on the grounds of convenience (they can be used as direct substitutes in existing animal-based recipes) and taste. For example, some previous studies show that consumers prefer alternatives to animal products that offer a similar look and taste; that lack of familiarity with new ingredients is a barrier to adopting vegetarian diets; and that taste is often cited as a barrier to adopting diets based only on whole plant foods.



There are increasingly strong reasons to move away from industrial animal agriculture for the good of the environment, animals, our personal health, and public health. Plant-based animal product alternatives (PB-APAs) represent a highly feasible way to reduce animal product consumption, since they address the core consumer decision drivers of taste, price, and convenience. PB-APAs tend to displace demand for animal products, not other plant foods, and are more able to do this compared to whole plant foods alone. This paper reviews 43 studies on the healthiness and environmental sustainability of PB-APAs compared to animal products. In terms of environmental sustainability, PB-APAs are more sustainable compared to animal products across a range of outcomes including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use, and other outcomes. In terms of healthiness, PB-APAs present a number of benefits, including generally favourable nutritional profiles, aiding weight loss and muscle synthesis, and catering to specific health conditions. Moreover, several studies present ways in which PB-APAs can further improve their healthiness using optimal ingredients and processing. As more conventional meat producers move into plant-based meat products, consumers and policymakers should resist naturalistic heuristics about PB-APAs and instead embrace their benefits for the environment, public health, personal health, and animals.



Bryant, C.J., 2022. Plant-based animal product alternatives are healthier and more environmentally sustainable than animal products. Future Foods, p.100174.

Read the full paper here. See also the TABLE explainer What is a healthy sustainable eating pattern?

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