Call for more research into long-term impact of meat alternatives

Marketing of meat alternatives as “clean” or “green” may cause consumers to overlook the potential health risks they pose, a briefing suggests.

Some meat-free burgers and sausages can be highly processed and contain similar amounts of calories and saturated fat as their meat equivalents, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said.

The independent body, which advises policy makers on ethical issues in bioscience and medicine, said consumers should not assume that plant-based alternatives will necessarily have the same benefits as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.

While the products have the potential to lead to more sustainable, healthier choices, the body is calling for more research into the long-term implications of plant-based meat alternatives.

The briefing says: “Terms used by manufacturers to describe meat alternatives that promote their environmental and animal welfare benefits, such as ‘clean’, ‘green’ and ‘slaughter-free’, might mean people overlook the health implications of these products.

“However, there are questions around whether it is appropriate or fair to hold meat alternatives to higher standards of healthiness than conventional meat, given their potential positive environmental and animal welfare profiles, and how moral trade-offs of this kind could be addressed.

“Reports suggest that people are not buying meat alternatives to entirely replace animal products.

“There is the possibility that the availability of meat alternatives might increase people’s overall consumption of meat and meat-like products, which could have health implications.

“It is unclear how this outcome would be managed or controlled to prevent an exacerbation of the challenges of meat production and consumption.”

Hugh Whittall, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: “It might be that people aren’t worried if these products aren’t any healthier than meat, if they are eating them as part of a balanced diet.

“But we need transparency and accuracy in marketing and labelling so that people are not misled or confused.

“As meat alternatives become more like meat, and cultured meat reaches the market, the potential of these products to disrupt meat production could be ground-shifting and something to be monitored over the coming decade.”

Arzoo Ahmed, a researcher at the organisation, said people attempting Veganuary should take care to include meat alternatives as part of a balanced, varied diet.

She said: “As long as the information is there, as part of the labelling, and people are aware that eating wholefoods, fruit, nuts, veg, beans, is always better than eating processed food – of any kind, whether it’s meat or plant based – I think that’s one of the key messages.”

She added: “This is not to tell people to stop eating these products, I think people are choosing to eat these products for many different reasons, and as long as they are aware about the reasons they are making those choices I think that’s the most important thing.”

Heather Russell, dietitian at the Vegan Society, said: “It’s important that people hear helpful messages about how to replace meat.

“You can use food labels to keep an eye on added fat and salt and choose plenty of healthy sources of protein like canned beans and chickpeas in water, red split lentils, pure peanut butter, unsalted nuts, pumpkin seeds, the dry variety of soya mince, and plain tofu, which can be seasoned using spices.

“Everyone can help the environment by limiting their intakes of highly processed foods but an off-the-shelf vegan diet has the lowest environmental impact and it’s the clear winner from an ethical perspective.”

Read Full Story