Impossible Burger (Scott Beale/Flickr)
Meat alternative products, or meat analogs (plant-based products that mimic the taste and texture of real meat), are gaining popularity, but they are not necessarily more healthy than meat or even other veggie burgers. Companies, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, are marketing these products to health-conscious consumers who also have an interest in minimizing their environmental impact. However, a deeper look at the health impacts of meat alternative products is needed, and consumers should be aware of the nuances surrounding the many choices for protein sources that are available.
A better meat alternative already exists that supports better farming practices, responds to cultural needs, and values both transparency and cost-effectiveness. An emphasis on whole, plant-forward diets and ensuring remaining meat and seafood is sustainably sourced will help hospitals fulfill their health and sustainability goals.
There are several health concerns surrounding plant heme or leghemoglobin, a key ingredient in some of the most popular meat alternative products. Other common ingredients, such as isolated pea protein and textured vegetable protein, are also lacking in nutritional value as compared to whole grains and legumes. Meat alternatives also frequently rely on high levels of sodium, artificial flavors and colors, and other additives to make them palatable.
Similarly, more research is needed regarding the ecological impact of meat alternative products. Claims of environmental benefit are based on comparisons to industrial beef production systems, which are infamous for their negative impacts on water, soil, and air quality and on human health. This is hardly an ideal standard with which to compare. In order to show a more accurate picture of which products are more sustainable, meat alternatives should be compared to existing solutions which provide wholesome food and protect the environment: growing legumes, rotational grazing, and mixed-species livestock grazing. When managed well, these systems help restore farmland through building soil, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting water quality.
Hospitals have the opportunity to lead the way in introducing their communities to delicious, plant-forward foods that are minimally processed, and many are already doing so. The winning recipe of the first Health Care Culinary Contest (red dahl, created by Norbert Bomm from Northwestern Memorial Hospital) is now being served in more than 750 hospitals across the country. To date, 28 hospitals have signed the Cool Food Pledge, an initiative which helps dining facilities offer consumers the delicious, plant-forward meals they want while cutting their food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030.
Meat alternatives are igniting a shift away from resource-intensive animal foods but are not an optimal long-term solution to meet nutritional or environmental needs. The combination of creative culinary strategy and hospitals’ purchasing power can support the growth of healthier, more resilient communities with sustainable, diversified food systems that meet the health needs of people and the planet.