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What Is Plant-Based Meat: Is It Good for Us and the Planet?

What is plant-based meat? Here's how plant-based meat benefits the environment, what plant-based meat is made of, and more.

Written by
Asha Swann
Published

The demand for plant-based anything is seriously on the rise. With more research on how plant-based foods are both beneficial to your health and the environment, more people are willing to give vegan food a chance. But many share the same curiosity: What is plant-based meat?

Studies show plant-based foods are more environmentally friendly than animal-derived products. Animal products—including beef, turkey, eggs, and dairy—come with massive carbon and water footprints. Plus, animal agriculture can damage ecosystems. With plant-based options now more accessible than ever before, it's getting easier to decrease our environmental impact.

Even still, it's not uncommon to ask yourself what plant-based meat is made of. If you want to learn more about it, you've come to the right place. Here's everything you need to know.

Meatless "Meat" Isn't New

Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Gardein are some of the most common meatless companies that offer plant-based meats. And your local grocery store and chain restaurants most likely sell one of these brands. Some grocery stores even have their own brands that use soy-based or pea proteins that recreate meat—without the meat.

However, plant-based meat has been around a lot longer than it has been on grocery store shelves. Cultures around the world have been using plant-based proteins like soybeans as staple dishes for centuries.

India, Taiwan, and Israel have the highest rates of vegetarianism. Common traditional breakfasts in Ghana are often vegan because grains, spices, plantains, and other plant-based options are easily accessible. Though not all Buddhists are vegetarian, it's common for Buddhists in China and Vietnam to adopt a vegetarian diet to coincide with spiritual beliefs. And as a result, many popular vegan dishes today are inspired by cultures across the globe.

Why Turn Plants Into Meat?

Why do various cultures make plants look like meat if we're avoiding eating meat? There are several answers to this question, but most of the time, it comes down to three reasons: personal health, animal ethics, or environmental reasons.

Many of our favorite foods are known for containing meat. Think chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, and Thanksgiving turkey. And when we give up those foods, no matter the reason, many of us may still want to recreate the taste.

Those foods that are commonly made of meat can now be made of plants, so you don't have to give up burgers and chicken tenders.

Is Plant-Based Meat Better for the Planet?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations released a report in 2019 showcasing the connection between farming and greenhouse gasses. After considering decades' worth of climate data, the report shows a link between greenhouse gas emissions (aka the major gasses warming the planet) and animal agriculture.

According to the report, between 2007 and 2016, "agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) activities" accounted for roughly 13% of carbon dioxide, 44% of methane, and 81% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activities.

The bottom line is clear: Farming land animals is resource-intensive, using large quantities of natural resources, electricity, and water. And cutting down old forests to build factory farms has added stress to fragile ecosystems.

As a result, reducing meat consumption can be a way for people to reduce their carbon footprints. Eating 1 kilogram of beef is the same as driving your car for 63 miles, so cutting back on meat consumption can cut down emissions. This is where plant-based options come into play.

Vegan meats made from plant-based food have some of the lowest carbon footprints. And making small swaps from meat to plant-based alternatives can effectively mitigate the negative impacts of the meat industry.

What Is Plant-Based Meat Made Of?

Vegans, vegetarians, and even meat-lovers have collectively flocked to try Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and other meat alternatives that look and taste just like real meat. From protein-filled tofu and tempeh to pork-like jackfruit, there's a plant-based meat swap for almost every meal.

Store-bought plant-based meats are usually made of some combination of soy or pea protein, spices, vegetables, and natural flavors. Ingredients may vary depending on the product. For example, tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans. Jackfruit is, well, a fruit. Seitan is made from wheat gluten. And other meat-like, plant-based products come from lentils, chickpeas, and a combination of vegetables and starches.

Beyond Meat incorporates peas, mung beans, fava beans, and brown rice in its protein-packed products. And the coloring and flavors of Beyond Meat's plant-based burgers come from beet juice and apple extract, giving the patties a meat-like appearance.

Impossible Foods also uses plants to make sausage, beef, chicken nuggets, meatballs, and more. And some products also contain coconut, canola, and shea oils as a source of fat.

What About Lab-Grown Meat?

Lab-grown meat, also called cultured meat, is one of the latest products emerging in the food industry. Lab-grown meat is exactly what you think it is: It's meat from animal cells, treated and grown in a lab. The final product is a piece of animal flesh that can be cooked and eaten, just like real meat.

Lab-grown meat products are not plant-based meats; they don't contain soy or plant proteins. However, because it's made in a lab, no animal is killed in the process. Plus, the process doesn't create nearly the same level of greenhouse gasses as traditional animal agriculture. Because the process is carefully controlled, some experts believe lab-grown meat is also much less likely to carry bacteria like E. coli.

Can You Make Plant-Based Meat?

Yes! Anyone can make plant-based meat—although, you may need to dust off some cooking skills to do so.

Meatless recipes are a great way to learn some new ways to cook beans or just add more veggies into your life. Plant-based proteins from beans can be a nice break from meat, while still keeping a healthy and delicious diet.

Check out our recipe roundups for tofu, tempeh, jackfruit, and black bean recipes. There's even a recipe that will help you make vegan chicken with just two ingredients. Whether you're looking to participate in Meatless Mondays or you're just looking for more vegan options to try, we've got you covered.