Plant-based meat and dairy products are rapidly-growing industries.
Experts valued the global plant-based meat market at over $5 billion last year, with forecasts expecting it to increase by 19% from 2022 through 2030.
And the plant-based dairy alternatives market reportedly totaled $11 billion in 2020 with projections to hit $32 million in 2031.
Now a new study from the University of Bath says that plant-based meat and dairy products are both better for human health and the environment.
The new study recently appeared in the journal Future Foods.
Meat alternative products first appeared in the 1960s and they were made from soy. Later, alternatives made of texturized vegetable protein (TVP) also appeared on the marker.
Today’s plant-based meat alternative products use ingredients like soy, pea protein, oils, potato starch, and various binders and flavorings to closely mimic the texture and taste of real meat.
Plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk dairy products received a much earlier start, with the first report of soy milk in China about 2,000 years ago.
Although soy milk products continue to be popular, they now share store shelves with dairy alternatives made from oats, rice, almonds, hemp, and coconut.
And today’s dairy alternative products have expanded from just a milk-type beverage to include alternatives for yogurt, butter, cheeses, and ice cream.
For the study, Dr. Bryant and his team reviewed 43 studies looking at the health and environmental factors of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. Researchers also examined consumer attitudes toward plant-based foods.
Based on their research, the team found that 90% of consumers who ate plant-based meat and dairy products followed a flexitarian diet, which allows for moderate animal meat consumption.
Researchers also found that people tended to choose plant-based meat products that were similar in taste, texture, and price to real meat.
“Plant-based meat is an easy and convenient way to directly replace meat in familiar dishes, so that makes it easier than eating whole plant foods only for people who want to eat less meat,” Dr. Chris Bryant, honorary research associate for the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, research consultant through Bryant Research Ltd, and lead author of this study, told Medical News Today.
“If you can still have a burger or a bolognese without needing to come up with completely new plant-based dishes, that makes it far easier, and for many people, more enjoyable,” he added.
According to Dr. Bryant, the purpose of this study was to investigate the healthiness and environmental sustainability of plant-based animal product alternatives.
“There seems to be a lot of misinformation on this topic, and misconceptions based on the idea that such products are ‘processed’ or ‘unnatural’,” Dr. Bryant told MNT.
“Many people may have the intuition that this means these products are unhealthy or bad for the environment, but as the study showed, the evidence suggests the opposite. In fact, plant-based animal product alternatives are healthier and more environmentally sustainable than the animal products they replace,” he explained.
The researchers reported evidence that plant-based dairy and meat products help lower greenhouse gas emissions, require less water and land, and produce less pollution than animal products.
And Dr. Bryant’s team found that not only were plant-based alternatives valid options for weight loss and building muscle, but they offered an easier option to add ingredients to offer additional health benefits, such as amino acids, vitamins, and antioxidants.
“Based on this review of the evidence, plant-based animal product alternatives tend to be healthier than animal products,” Dr. Bryant noted.
“In particular,” he specified, “overweight patients can benefit from switching from chicken to mycoprotein, which will increase their fiber intake, increase satiety with fewer calories, and decrease insulin response.”
“Plant-based animal product alternatives can also help lower cholesterol, and provide benefits for gut health,” he continued. “Making these simple switches can have substantial health benefits.”
MNT also spoke with Lauren Sepe, a clinical nutritionist and the in-house nutritionist at the Kellman Wellness Center in New York City, about this study.
Sepe stated that many of the points raised in the study regarding the health and environmental issues surrounding animal meat are general concerns, so she cautioned from a nutrition perspective that today’s plant-based meat substitute products are a “mixed bag” due to some of the less healthy ingredients they may contain.
“Some of the ingredients in these alternatives I find questionable, and in large quantities may not be the healthiest choice,” she explained.
“That being said, for people who are looking for the experience of eating a burger, without eating meat, these are a good occasional option. I do not recommend them as a staple of their diet, as although people see plant-based foods as healthier options, many are still highly processed, so you have to be selective in your choices,” Sepe cautioned.
She added that although these types of foods certainly have a role to play in providing plant-based options for people as an alternative to meat options, more research is required on the overall health of these lab-produced foods.
“I like the fact that this study is bringing to light the detrimental conditions on these farms and the environmental impacts, but it leaves the option of smaller, local farms out of the discussion, which is really a completely different category than conventional feedlot animals,” she said.
“Some plant-based products are better than others. Moving a client from one highly processed meat option to a highly processed plant-based option may not be a completely better option. I see many of these products as good occasional substitutes and as a stepping stone to healthier plant-based options for some people.”
– Lauren Sepe