Vegan fast-food: why plant-based alternatives are good for the planet but not your health
From 'sausage' rolls to 'chicken' nuggets, plant-based junk food is everywhere now. But what are we doing to our bodies and the planet if we go meat-free for our fast-food fix?
Social Media Influencers, food producers and fast-food brands alike are clambering on top of one other to promote their latest plant-based offerings - the new, much cooler way to say vegan or vegetarian. These businesses haven't suddenly developed a conscience - there's money to be made. The ethical triple whopper of climate, health and animal welfare concerns is driving millions of meat-eaters to abandon cooked animal flesh in favour of plant-based alternatives.
According to a study carried out by the UK Data Service, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. Similar shifts are afoot across the developed world: Berlin-based vegan supermarket chain Veganz say plant-only eating doubled in continental Europe between 2016 and 2020, and a report compiled by research firm Global Data found that the number of vegans in the US rocketed up by 500 per cent over a similar time period.
Enter a new type of foodstuff: vegan fast-food. From sausage rolls to chicken nuggets, there are currently a bewildering number of options on supermarket shelves and burger joints for the plant-based junk food lover to fill their faces with. ‘Plant-based’ is currently such a hot term in the food industry - some manufacturers even go so far as to label their cardboard cartons as ‘plant-based’. But how do these new ultra-processed products stack up against old-fashioned meat-based alternatives when it comes to impacts on health and climate?
Weighing up the problem
It is often said that the single best thing most of us can do to combat climate change is to stop eating meat, particularly red meat. The global system of intensive animal farming is quite simply ravaging the planet – for every person on the Earth today there are ten animals being reared for food.
A study carried out by researchers in Sweden in 2019 found that industrial meat production is the single biggest cause of deforestation globally, and that 77 per cent of agricultural land is used solely for meat and dairy production.
Animals reared for meat are also gobbling up food that would eradicate world hunger –according to a report published by Greenpeace, 90 per cent of soybeans grown are fed to the animals we eat. And the methane given off by cows is particularly good at helping melt the icecaps, having 28 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
Fortunately, for every problem ravaging the world there is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur trying to fix it, and get very rich in the process. Fed on a diet of science fiction and with an appetite to change the world, California’s finest brains set about concocting a meat-free burger that would look and taste every bit as good as the real thing.
With some creative cookery and a strain of yeast genetically engineered to produce a protein called haem – which is responsible for meat’s meatiness – the modern fake meat industry was born a little over a decade ago.
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Say goodbye to veggie burgers that taste like sawdust and say hello to billboards with glistening pea protein-based burgers topped with dairy free ‘cheese’. With very few exceptions, swapping meat and dairy for one of a plant-derived equivalents will slash your personal contribution to destroying our planet.
A study carried out at Trinity College Dublin found that picking the vegan option over beef when ordering a burger could shrink your meal’s cost to the climate and the environment by up to 96 per cent.
While our consciences may have all been pricked by all the talk of methane-filled cow burps, research shows that neither concern over the coming climate catastrophe nor images of grotesque conveyor belt slaughterhouses are enough for most people to give up their meat fix. Rather, it is the promise of better health today that gives us the final nudge to pick the meatless menu option – but how much truth is there to this when it comes to ultra-processed junk food?
Health-wise, eating less meat really is a good idea. Food writer Michael Pollan famously summed up healthy eating as: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” This truism has been supported with science countless times, with high meat and dairy consumption linked to obesity, bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even dementia.
However, the EAT–Lancet Commission on nutrition has shown that the healthiest diet for us and the planet is largely plant-based but including small amounts of meat, fish and dairy. For much of Homo Sapiens’ existence we have survived on mostly vegetables, leaves, seeds, nuts, insects alongside a little meat and fish. From top to tail, our digestive system and the trillions of microbes that call it home are evolved for processing lots of flora.
Vegan burgers fall well outside this ideal: a congealed disc of refined pea protein, emulsifiers, oils and lab-made starches, pepped up with sugar, flavourings and a lot of salt is about as close to a vegetable as a space hopper is to a spaceship. Imitation meats are among the most highly processed foods to ever grace our tables, effectively neutralising many of the health benefits a greenery-filled diet should bring.
Discover more about the future of food:
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- The artificial meat factory – the science of your synthetic supper
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Vegan ‘meats’ fall into the newly recognised category of ‘ultra-processed’ food, which has been linked to the very same health perils of eating red meat and fried food. The fibrous skins and the crunchy pith of vegetables that our gut microbes so love is scraped away long before a lump of fake meat plops onto the production line.
All the refining, milling, heating, cooling and pressing of those myriad ingredients effectively gives us partially digested food that slips down the gullet easily and makes little use of the seven and a half metres of intestine that is designed to process food.
Sugars and fats rush into the bloodstream far quicker than our internal chemistry is equipped to handle; the healthy splurge of hunger-satisfying hormones, such as ghrelin, that follows a meal becomes a dribble, making us feel less satisfied and more likely to overeat.
Like breakfast cereals, which have been similarly processed to within an inch of their lives, food manufacturers opt to fortify their products with minerals and vitamins to try to improve their health credentials, although such purified, powdered nutrients rarely offer the full benefits that are given when eaten from a food that they are naturally in.
So, if you are thinking of swapping your meat patty for a plant protein alternative, the planet may thank you, but your waistline and arteries might not.
Stuart is a science and medical writer, presenter and educator. He is a trained medical doctor and qualified teacher, and a food scientist for the BBC’s Inside the Factory.