It’s been a few years since the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat burgers began showing up in grocery stores and restaurants. Despite their popularity, critics note that high-tech meat alternatives don’t exactly deserve a health halo. Perhaps in response, Impossible Foods released its 2.0 version in 2019, with 36% less sodium and 43% less saturated fat. Late last year, Beyond Meat announced its plans to debut a newer, leaner patty with less saturated fat as well.
This seems like a good thing—companies making their products healthier is always a step in the right direction, isn’t it?
Not in this case. The reality is that we’re a decade away from the point of no return in the fight against climate change, and industrial animal agriculture is partially responsible for that. Meat production—from the clearing of land and trees to the transportation of these products—accounts for between 14.5% and 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have concluded that without significantly changing our diet it will be impossible to mitigate the environmental devastation.
And that’s the rub: While most people know overconsumption of meat is directly linked to diseases such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain kinds of cancers, they’re still eating it in record amounts. The USDA predicted that 2020 will be yet another year where more meat was consumed per person than ever before (the exact totals are still being tallied).
Let’s get real: The idea that most people actually want to eat healthy food is a joke. Would you be surprised to learn that the salad on Wendy’s menu isn’t their most popular item? I’m glad they offer it, but nobody goes to McDonald’s for the fruit. They go there for greasy, good ol’-fashioned Americana. The things we humans like—lots of fat, salt, sugar, etc.—aren’t good for us. Evidence clearly suggests that a surefire way to turn a consumer off from eating your food is to let them know it’s healthy.
In other words, the reason Impossible and Beyond products have taken off in a way that earlier, vegetarian-targeted brands such as Boca and Gardein never quite did is not their nutritional profile. It’s the fact that they actually taste good. The great opportunity of these innovative, super-realistic meat alternatives is their potential to convince die-hard meat eaters that they can, in fact, eat satisfying and delicious food without relying on animals. Making comfort food healthier at the expense of taste decreases the chances that consumers will make the switch, and reinforces the message that plant-based food is for health nuts and hippies.
These high-tech plant-based food companies have already figured out how to make their products taste delicious—now is not the time to lose focus by trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Rather than expending energy on making their products healthy, companies should be putting the bulk of their efforts into making them affordable. Plant-based meat still costs twice as much as industrial meat, and we know that in addition to taste, price is a major decision-making point for consumers—so while the products have done well, they still only represent a tiny fraction of the meat market. Only when their products are competitive with industrial meat on the most relevant metrics will plant-based meat companies truly have a shot at taking over consumers’ plates in a meaningful way.
In the meantime, for people seeking to eat an exclusively healthy whole-food diet, that option is certainly still available to them. Next-generation makers of plant-based foods will continue innovating, but kale isn’t going anywhere. The simple reality, though, is that we’ve been telling the public how to eat a healthy diet for decades, with barely any budge in consumer habits.
If fast-food-like meat analogs are the only way to convince a significant portion of the population to reduce their meat intake, so be it. We can’t wait for the entire human race to have a health epiphany in order to make collective change. The planet’s future depends on us taking action now. I’ll meet you at Burger King.
Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Brian is the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook (Hachette Book Group: September 18, 2018) and The Reducetarian Solution (Penguin Random House: April 18, 2017).