The Fake Meat Industry Is Blowing Up–And It’s Kind Of Terrible For The Planet

fake meat products

In the last 10 years, meat substitutes have come a long way. According to an NPR report, in the last year alone, over 100 new fake meat products have been introduced in the United States, including everything from “beef tips” to “orange chicken” and “pulled pork.” It’s multi-million dollar industry–but are meat substitutes really better for the planet, or for your health?

The wide-scale environmental and health impacts of industrially-produced meat products, like ground beef and hot dogs are serious. Deforestation, carbon monoxide, ammonia in the ground water, and, of course, the concerns about the humane treatment of animals are all pressing matters–but because meat substitutes have traditionally been weird-tasting, overly-chewy, or limited to cubes of flavorless, awful, GMO-laden tofus, few meat-eaters have even considered making the switch. Until recently, when fake meat manufacturers have upped their game, making more convincing, more tasty non-meat products. But they’re not exactly giving the environment (or your health) a leg up.

Quite honestly, more meaty-tasting meat substitutes means more processed, frozen, high-in-sodium, lab-made food products with large carbon footprints and health concerns of their own. Which means that simply swapping real meat for one of the hundreds of fake meats now available isn’t always the best choice. But when compared to, say, BPI’s now-famous “pink slime,” a combination of ammonia-washed meat “trimmings” essentially pulled off the factory floor, lean, protein-rich sprouted tofu, falafel, or wheat gluten starts to look a little more trust-worthy. Which could be part of the reason that the fake meat industry is beefing up–because commercially-produced meat products have become, to many, so unsavory. And with prominent writers like Mark Bittman coming out in favor of eating less meat, more and more non-vegetarians are regularly looking to replace animal proteins in their meals.

But for many meat-lovers, products like “lean beef trimmings” are still preferable to the fake stuff, if they fake stuff is a smelly Gardenburger circa 2002. Because, while the meat industry may be sketchy at times (see: attempts to use “downed” animals in sausages and hot dogs), seitan, tempeh, and tofu are just as unfamiliar and gross-seeming…unless they really, really look and taste like meat.

If converting omnivores, even just once a week, is the goal, then the fake meat industry is right on target. And for activist groups like FARM and PETA, that truly is the focus–not improved health or sustainability, but simply getting fewer people to eat animal products.

But even if more people are tempted to try a fake meat products, the environment isn’t going to be much better off. And if Americans continue to eat the way they do (tons of refined carbs, few fruits and veggies, not enough water, etc.), swapping fake burgers for real burgers isn’t going to do much for the obesity crisis, either.

Still, as a vegetarian,  I can’t say that the convenience and improved texture of fake meat isn’t winning me over. Having a grocery aisle full of easy-to-use, protein-rich substitutes makes my lazy heart go pitter-patter as much as the next time-pressed herbivore. But I try not to fool myself–the four varieties of “veggie crumbles” I have to choose from aren’t saving the world.

Image: Gardein

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      • Briana Rognlin

        But if everyone starts eating processed soy products, and we replace the meat industry with a fake meat industry in order to mass produce the stuff, aren’t we just going to end up with the same problems?

    • Briana Rognlin

      I get that for some people, fake meat can help them deal with meat cravings as they adjust to an all-vegetarian diet, so I guess you could argue that some amount of fake meat has its place. But unless your sole motivation for going vegetarian is an animal rights issue, I just think it makes more sense to eat sustainably-produced, healthy meats (i.e. hormone-free, grass-fed, organic lean cuts) on occasion than to load up on processed junk.

      And the more you learn about fake meats, the scarier they get. Take quorn, for example: …I just can’t get down with anything made in a lab out of fungus.

      • Katrina

        Quorn is scary stuff. I don’t want to eat a fungus that has been engineered in a lab. I think that going vegetarian is fantastic, I’m not one but I have a lot of respect for those that are. I feel that if your goal is trying to better protect animals you shouldn’t neglect your own health in doing so.

    • Samantha

      The point of this article is to say that replacing processed meat with processed fake meat is not improving the environment (or your health) all that much. The fact is, you are still processing the food, using chemicals, additives, and the like, and also packaging in the same exact way (plastic, paper, and cardboard). The best thing to do would be to forgo processed foods altogether. Eat whole, organic fruits, veg, nuts, legumes, grains, ect. Take the time to “process” the food yourself, instead of relying on a frozen boxed substitute. Then you’ll be doing the world and yourself a favor. ;)

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        The aspect of packaging is definitely an important one, too. Many processed “meats” come in plastic packaging, which is also super-wasteful.

    • CB

      You gotta be kidding. It’s a big improvement over regular meat. A LOT less resources are used to produce plant matter over animal meat. Not too mention no animals are killed/abused, you won’t have the feces from improper butching in your fake meat, etc, etc.

      So no, it’s not terrible for the planet, but a net gain over these same people eating meat. Don’t be a crazy all or nothing veggie, it turns a lot of potential converts off.

    • mika

      I like real meat. But alternative meat product is good too. I missed the part about the terribleness to the planet.

    • Kj

      I am “freegan,” as in, mostly vegan with some fish/chicken/eggs on occasion, and this fake meat business creeps me out.

      I concur that eating the occasional ethically raised cow is probably a better option than the fake meat in a box. My general rule is, if it’s in a box, just stay away, and faux meats are no exception.