Plant-Based Meat Alternatives, Ranked from Most to Least Eco-Friendly

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"Which plant-based meat alternatives are most and least eco-friendly? Find out in our sustainability ranking of beans, tofu, and more."
plant-based meat alternatives

Plant-based recipes have taken over our feeds—literally. You can’t even scroll through Instagram or TikTok without stumbling upon one of the millions of posts.

What’s especially cool, though, is that it’s not just vegetarians and vegans opting for greener alternatives. Approximately 80 million Americans used plant-based meat alternatives in 2020. In addition, dollar sales of plant-based foods have increased 43% over the past two years.

While there are plenty of store-bought options available for conscious consumers to try (hello, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat!), people are also getting creative with more traditional options. Particularly beans, jackfruit, lentils, seitan, tempeh, and tofu.

Yes, It’s a Ranking—but *All* of These Options Are More Sustainable Than Meat

Now, let’s get one thing straight: While this is a ranking, all of these plant-based meat alternatives—even the ones that come last—are more sustainable than meat.

Animal agriculture contributes to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and past research has shown eating a more plant-forward diet is one of the best ways to combat climate change.

Even tofu, which came in last in this ranking, is a much more planet-friendly alternative to the meat you’ll find at your grocery store. In research from the University of Oxford and Johns Hopkins University, even the lowest-emitting beef options (34 kg carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e) didn’t stand a chance against the highest-emitting tofu (4 kg CO2e). Store-bought plant-based meat also came in at just 7 kg CO2e.

So now that you know adding any of these options to your plate more frequently does the planet a favor, there’s nothing wrong with staying curious. If you’re wondering which plant-based meat alternative reigns supreme in terms of its sustainability, we found out.

Our Methodology

The Brightly team compared popular plant-based meat alternatives based on how eco-friendly they are. To rank the options, we looked at elements of a life cycle assessment for each substitute. This means we looked at all the stages of each product’s life to determine its overall impact on the environment.

Plant-Based Meat Alternatives We Ranked:

  • Beans
  • Jackfruit
  • Lentils
  • Seitan
  • Tempeh & Tofu

Each plant-based meat alternative was rated out of 20 points based on responsible farming, production and transport, water consumption, and land use. Each category was scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the least eco-friendly and 5 being the most eco-friendly. But even those that scored 5/5 aren’t 100% sustainable—nothing is.

With a range of plant-based meat alternatives to choose from, here’s how hungry shoppers can weigh their options.

Plant-Based Meat Alternatives, Ranked

1. Beans (Dried)

plant-based meat alternatives

Total Score: 20/20

  • Responsible Farming: 5/5
  • Production & Transport: 5/5
  • Water Consumption: 5/5
  • Land Use: 5/5

How to Use Beans: Swap ground beef for beans in soups and chili, tacos and burritos, and burgers.

Beans come in first place for the most eco-friendly plant-based meat alternative. While all beans are great (and delicious!) picks, we specifically looked at the environmental impact of dried beans to more easily compare them to lentils.

Beans are a great source of protein and fiber. Aside from being a healthy choice, dried beans are also a sustainable crop to farm. First of all, they don’t require chemical fertilizers. In fact, they return nutrients to the soil and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that in 2014, about 85 million hectares of pulses were cultivated worldwide, fixing 3 to 6 million tons of nitrogen to soils across the globe.

And because dried beans fix their own nitrogen, they increase biodiversity and improve ecosystems, creating a healthier environment for plants, insects, and animals alike. Plus, pulses—a category that includes beans, lentils, and peas—are climate-resilient, so they can adapt to and withstand climate stressors like droughts or floods.

Dried beans also have a low water footprint, requiring significantly less water than meat or other protein-rich plants. 1 kilogram of dry beans only needs about 50 liters of water. In comparison, 1 kilogram of chicken requires roughly 4,325 liters.

The United States is a global leader in dry bean production, so getting your hands on beans is easy. That means transportation emissions from beans are low in the U.S. Overall, 2 kilograms of CO2e is emitted to produce 1 kilogram of dry beans, but this figure could go down to roughly 0.53 kilograms if you opt for organic dry beans. 

Beans are one of the better options when it comes to meat alternatives. And they’re significantly more sustainable than any type of meat. Plus, dry beans have a long shelf life, so they won’t go to waste.

2. Jackfruit

plant-based meat alternatives

Total Score: 15/20

  • Responsible Farming: 3/5
  • Production & Transport: 3/5
  • Water Consumption: 4/5
  • Land Use: 5/5

How to Use Jackfruit: Swap shredded chicken or pork for jackfruit in pulled pork sandwiches, tacos, curry, and “chicken” drumsticks.

Next on our list is jackfruit, a large, durable fruit that has recently become a favorite meat substitute. Starchy and savory, it’s also a popular staple in sweet dishes in Africa, Asia, and South America. Jackfruit is native to western India and mostly grown in tropical areas, but it has gained popularity in Western countries thanks to its texture that resembles pulled pork.

Cultivating jackfruit has a relatively low carbon footprint: 1 kilogram of jackfruit produces about 0.9 kilograms of CO2e. Jackfruit is also resistant to pests and diseases, so its pesticide consumption is also low. 

To satisfy the increased demand for jackfruit in Europe, the U.K., and the U.S., India has increased its exports. In 2018, about 500 tons of jackfruit were shipped from India to Western countries, and that number is on the rise. Countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Jamaica, and Uganda are also rushing in to fill the demand.

Though jackfruit cultivation produces lower carbon emissions than meat, the impact of this increased transport is difficult to determine—especially since jackfruit isn’t widely cultivated in the U.S. Generally, an increase in transportation emissions has a negative impact on the environment.

Additionally, jackfruit has a relatively low water footprint. It takes about 967 liters of water to produce one kilogram of jackfruit. Plus, growing jackfruit doesn’t require extensive irrigation—it grows on trees! 

Because jackfruit grows on trees, it’s a less land-intensive crop. It’s also a shade crop, making it an excellent candidate for polyculture—a farming technique in which multiple crops are grown simultaneously as opposed to using land for one crop only. 

However, jackfruit is a more labor-intensive product for harvesting, as it requires manual cleaning, packing, and sorting. And generally, the agriculture industry has varying working conditions. While harvesting jackfruit isn’t easy, countries suffering from food insecurity rely heavily on it. A single jackfruit can feed a small family for a couple of days.

There’s still a lot to be learned about the future of jackfruit production, but so far, this meat alternative is proving to be a sustainable choice.

3. Lentils

Total Score: 14/20

  • Responsible Farming: 5/5
  • Production & Transport: 4/5
  • Water Consumption: 1/5
  • Land Use: 4/5

How to Use Lentils: Swap ground beef for lentils in tacos and burritos, chili, meatballs, sloppy Joes, and burgers.

Lentils are another popular legume-pulse at the top of our list. The bean plant was first cultivated around 8000 B.C. in what is now northern Syria. They’re primarily popular in places with arid climates, like northwestern India, and are rich in micronutrients like iron, magnesium, and zinc.

Not only are lentils high in protein and fiber, but compared to most crops, they’re also incredibly sustainable. First, harvesting lentils has proven to be less labor-intensive and less reliant on machinery than most agricultural systems. The relative affordability and accessibility of lentils in comparison to other sources of protein means that the crop helps global food security, especially in low to middle-income countries.

However, even though lentils have a water footprint that’s lower than that of meat, lentils do have a higher water footprint in comparison to other crops. It takes nearly 6,400 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of lentils, but only about 2,360 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of soybeans for tofu and tempeh. 

But there’s a catch: When looking at the water required per gram of protein, the water footprint of beef is still six times larger than that of pulses like lentils. And lentils are beneficial to agricultural production systems because they can recycle water.

Lentils also add nutrients to the soils they’re planted in and require less inorganic fertilizer. To ensure your lentils haven’t been grown using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, be sure to purchase organic lentils.

The top five lentil-producing countries in 2017 were Canada, India, Turkey, the U.S., and Kazakhstan, but legume production is widespread beyond this group. This might explain why even with transport factored in, 1 kilogram of lentils only creates about 0.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. On average, that’s 48 times lower than that of cattle.

Even still, lentils require clearing a lot of land for cultivation. But they also enrich soils and can be grown alongside other crops through polyculture and crop rotations.

Because lentils typically come packaged dry, they have a long shelf life. Using them can reduce the amount of food waste being sent to landfills.

4. Seitan

Total Score: 11/20

  • Responsible Farming: 2/5
  • Production & Transport: 3/5
  • Water Consumption: 2/5
  • Land Use: 4/5

How to Use Seitan: Swap chicken with seitan in stir-fries, sandwiches and wraps, kebabs, and salads. Or swap ground beef with ground seitan in chili, tacos, and stews.

Seitan, a fibrous wheat protein, is oftentimes mistaken for real meat because of its similar texture. In fact, a video of a vegan chicken recipe made from seitan went viral on TikTok last year, garnering millions of views for its realistic appearance.

Seitan is made from the wheat gluten that’s produced when starch is rinsed away from a flour and water mixture. This extensive rinsing process contributes to seitan’s high water consumption relative to other meat substitutes, using about 3,786 liters of water per 1 kilogram produced.

Seitan is a tricky substitute because wheat production relies upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These additives contribute to water pollution, biodiversity reduction, and put insect pollinators at risk.

However, other than pesticide use, seitan generates few pollutants during its life cycle. According to recent research from Love Seitan and Thrust Carbon, 100 kilograms of seitan only produces about 46.6 kilograms of CO2e—or 0.5 kilograms per kilogram of seitan. On the other hand, beef produces roughly 6,000 kilograms of CO2e per 100 kilograms of beef. 

As for farming and ethical labor practices, it’s possible that the grain handling industry can expose laborers to unsafe machinery and chemicals. Most facilities are working to provide workers with safety protocols to ensure working conditions are ethical.

Because seitan is derived from wheat, farmers can use a polyculture crop production system. Therefore, the same field can be used to grow wheat in both the winter and the spring.

Wheat even has a significantly lower land use than most common food products. While wheat and rye use about 1.44 square meters for every 1,000 kilocalories produced, beef uses about 119.49 square meters.

5. Tofu & Tempeh

plant-based meat alternatives

Total Score: 8/20

  • Responsible Farming: 1/5
  • Production & Transport: 2/5
  • Water Consumption: 3/5
  • Land Use: 2/5

How to Use Tofu and Tempeh: Tofu can be used as a substitute for chicken, beef, pork, turkey, and even seafood. You can use tempeh to make plant-based bacon, wings, and more.

Tofu and tempeh both come from soybeans; thus, they rank similarly in terms of sustainability. But before we get into that, let’s go over how different each option is.

Tofu is actually considered the oldest plant-based meat alternative, originating in China more than 2,000 years ago. It has a spongy texture, and it’s incredibly versatile—it has the ability to absorb any flavor you add to it.

Tempeh, on the other hand, is a fermented, firm cake. While the texture of seitan is soft and stringy like chicken, tempeh has a tougher, grainer texture and a taste that’s slightly nutty.

First things first: Is growing soy eco-friendly? Because of soy’s increased popularity, global production has skyrocketed—it’s 13 times higher now than it was in the early 1960s, and has doubled since 2000. This popularity has led to the expansion of croplands used to produce soybeans.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the soybean industry can contribute to deforestation and the displacement of small farmers and indigenous communities. Specifically, unsafe soybean agriculture puts a strain on ecosystems across South America. Deforestation occurs when land is cleared for the cultivation of soy, harming animal and plant populations that already exist in those areas.

Another issue with soy is that it’s been associated with high rates of soil erosion in recent years. In addition, agrochemicals and fertilizers are used to manage soybean farms, and these chemicals “are a major source of nutrient pollution in rivers, lakes, and estuaries,” says the WWF.

But there’s important information to be aware of that’s often missing from these discussions: About 77% of the world’s soybean production is used to feed animals for meat and dairy production. Only 7% of soybeans become human food products like tempeh and tofu, so the plant-based food industry isn’t to blame. Instead, eating the meat from animals that consumed soy is the primary contributor to deforestation.

The good news is soybeans grown in the U.S. don’t contribute to deforestation. In addition, the U.S. Sustainability Alliance says “95% of U.S. soy farmers participate in conservation programs and use sustainable production practices.” These farmers have also decreased their energy use per tonne of soybeans grown by 46% in the last 25 years, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 47% between 1980 and 2012.

Even though soy gets a bad rap, it only emits about 2 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of tofu eaten, which is a better statistic than the emissions of meats like lamb or beef. And as previously mentioned, soybean production has a lower water footprint relative to that of meat and other plant-based options, like lentils and seitan. Soybeans have a water footprint of about 2,145 cubic meters per ton, which is equivalent to 2,360 liters of water needed to produce 1 kilogram of soybeans.

As for transportation, 80% of global soybean cultivation comes from the U.S., Argentina, and Brazil. Soy products must be exported and imported to meet the world’s consumers, and it is difficult to calculate the exact number of greenhouse gas emissions associated with exporting soy. But because soybeans are cultivated in the U.S., tofu and tempeh are easily accessible to U.S. consumers.

Overall, opting for tofu or tempeh is still more environmentally friendly than choosing meat. Be sure to consider where your soybean products are sourced and opt for organic labels before making your next purchase.

The Takeaway for Conscious Consumers

plant-based meat alternatives

No matter how you choose to go meatless, even making a few plant-based swaps each week will help decrease land consumption, water consumption, and overall emissions associated with your meal relative to meat options.

The diverse world of meat alternatives provides plenty of opportunities to research and discover new sustainable choices. The only remaining question is which do you want to try first?


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Which plant-based meat alternatives are most and least eco-friendly? Find out in our sustainability ranking of beans, tofu, and more.

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