The rise of plant-based alternatives to traditional meat and dairy products has been hailed as a promising solution to fight climate change. As the world grapples with the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many consumers are turning to burgers made from pea protein isolate mixed with coconut oil instead of beef. However, a new study from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) raises concerns about the nutritional adequacy of these plant-based analogs, particularly in developing countries.
Published in the journal World Development, the study explores the potential of plant-based meat and dairy products to be part of sustainable diets as meat consumption increases in low- and middle-income countries and declines in high-income countries. The researchers found that while these alternatives are more environmentally friendly than their animal-based counterparts, they do not always offer the same nutritional benefits.
Prabhu Pingali, the director of TCI and lead author of the study, explains, “The environmental advantages of modern-day plant-based meat and dairy products may make them suitable options in high-income countries where consumers are looking to eat more sustainably, but in developing countries where micronutrient deficiencies are common and dietary diversity is low, traditional meat and dairy products are the safer choice.”
The research conducted by TCI analyzed existing studies on the topic and discovered that livestock and dairy milk production have higher environmental impacts compared to plant-based analogs. Greenhouse gas emissions from beef are 13 times greater than those from plant-based meats, while emissions from pork and poultry production are still three and two times higher, respectively. Livestock production also requires more land and water resources.
In terms of nutrition, the study found that although plant-based meats often have a similar protein content to traditional meat, plant-based milk frequently lacks the same amount of protein as dairy milk. Furthermore, plant-based meat and milk products may not always contain the complete amino acid profile necessary for the human body.
Animal-sourced foods are also important sources of micronutrients like iron, vitamin A, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium, and folate, which are often lacking in diets in developing countries. While plant-based analogs are fortified with these micronutrients, the researchers found insufficient evidence that they are as bioavailable as those found in meat and dairy foods. This means that even if a plant-based burger contains the same amount of iron as a beef burger, it may not be as easily absorbed by the human body.
Another limitation highlighted by the researchers is the current technological constraints that have restricted plant-based meats to a limited range of forms, such as grounds, emulsions, and crumbles. This limited variety hampers the widespread adoption of plant-based meats.
Although plant-based meats and dairy products are not yet widely available in lower- and middle-income countries, the study’s authors urged researchers to consider the affordability and potential impact that the growth of these analogs could have on smallholder farmers who rely on livestock farming for their livelihoods. “The expansion of plant-based meat and dairy products into developing countries could upend the livelihoods of smallholder farmers who depend on livestock production,” warned Pingali.
The study also emphasizes the distinction between modern plant-based foods like the Impossible Burger and minimally processed plant-based foods like tofu or seitan, which have important implications for dietary recommendations. Recommendations based on evidence supporting the consumption of whole or minimally processed plant-based foods may not necessarily apply to plant-based analogs.
While plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products offer significant environmental advantages, their nutritional adequacy and suitability for different contexts, particularly in developing countries, require further research. As the world seeks sustainable solutions to combat climate change and promote healthier diets, it is essential to consider the unique challenges and nutritional needs of diverse populations.