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Alternative meats – are they really an improvement?

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 July 2020

For some time now, meat substitutes have been a growing food trend. According to a 2019 A.T. Kearney report, by 2040, only 40% of global meat consumption will still come from conventional meat sources. However, the available data doesn’t necessarily uphold these predictions and claims.

As part of the 2020 virtual Beef Improvement Federation conference, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California – Davis, explored the question, “Are ‘alternative’ meats an end-product improvement?” in her presentation.

Definitions matter

Promoters of alternative meat products often state they are an improvement over the real thing. The basic points of improvement they refer to tend to be product attributes, taste, price, nutritional quality and sustainability metrics.

Within alternative meats, there are two broad categories different products fall under.

“The first kind of product line is vegan meat substitutes,” Van Eenennaam said. “Basically, they are using plant-based concentrates and proteins, usually from legumes, that are then brought together with fats and flavors to give them a meaty taste. Then, most importantly, nutrients are added to at least attempt to make them the same as meats.”

Examples of these products include Impossible Burger, made of a soy base, and Beyond Burger, made from a pea base. These patties include additives made from cellular agriculture, proteins and compounds synthesized by recombinant yeast, fungi or bacteria grown in culture such as fatty acids, vitamins like B12 and soy leghemoglobin.

The second type of alternative is in-vitro, cultured or cell-based meat where an adult stem cell is taken from an animal and put in a bioreactor to grow a certain cut of meat. Some companies working on these products are Memphis Meats and New Age Meats.

Meat alternatives are partly in the public eye because it is an attractive industry for investments and venture capital. According to A.T. Kearney, about $50 million has been invested in funding for cultured meats and about $900 million for vegan meat alternative brands.

Statistical estimates versus realities

Van Eenennaam considered the claim about 60% of meat being alternative by 2040. Specifically, the estimates are that 35% will be cultured meat and 25% will be vegan alternatives.

Based on U.S. burger consumption, she calculated that would equate to 1,240,761,529,514 cultured patties and 886,258,235,367 vegan replacement patties needed.

“We produce about 105 billion pounds of meat annually in the U.S.,” said Van Eenennaam. “That’s about 99.8% of all meat by volume, where vegan replacements produce 200 million [pounds]; that’s 0.2% of the market, and there are none for cultured meats at the time.”

Cultured meats are more difficult to produce, requiring a bioreactor with a growth medium. Mediums contain an energy source like glucose, synthetic amino acids, fetal bovine serum, horse serum and antibiotics.

Van Eenennaam related this to what already happens inside a cow.

“The rumen is basically a self-propelling, self-cleaning, solar-powered, cellulose-driven bioreactor that has the ability to produce highly nutritious foods,” she said. “I think it’s going to be hard to compete against this biological system.”

Future Meat Technologies built the first lab-grown meat production facility in 2019, in Jerusalem. The company claims their products will result in 99% less land use and 80% fewer greenhouse emissions than traditional meat production, but Van Eenennaam finds these estimates doubtful since production hasn’t yet begun.

In a 2019 RethinkX report, they claimed 10% of meat produced in the U.S. was coming from alternative sources. In the same report, they predicted by 2030 70% of all beef consumed would come from meat alternatives.

However, Van Eenennaam pointed out the 10% figure was already incorrect based on 2019 alone.

A big reason for the difference is the cost of meat alternatives. Plant-based products are four to five times more expensive than real meats, accounting for 1% of sales but only 0.2% of weight sold.

Sales, nutrition and sustainability

Since COVID-19, alternative meat products have gone up to the point of consistently outperforming animal-based meat on dollar sales growth. 

But, this needs to be kept in perspective, Van Eenennaam notes. In fact, U.S. ground beef sales have been up by a billion dollars in 2020, thus far.

“Remember, plant-based meat is at about 200 million pounds produced per year and animal-based meat is 105,000 million,” she says. “So, when we’re talking about increases like this, the plant increase is about $100 million of intake; that’s a 5,000 million dollar increase in animal-based sales.”

Nutritionally speaking, vegan alternatives and real beef need to be compared by specific nutrients and digestibility. For example, there are similar amounts of fat and saturated fats in both products. Plant-based substitutes have higher levels of iron, but they are not as bio-available to the human body as those in real beef.

Finally, the sustainability question is a very complicated one to compare and contrast between the two. Right now, agriculture accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 4% of which is animal related.

“What we don’t know is what will [be] the trade-offs associated with replacing agriculture with industrial food production grown in factories being powered by electricity,” she said. “I think that we really need to understand those metrics before we convert 70% of our beef production to alternative protein sources.”  end mark

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.