Is Science Coming to the Rescue of Meat at Last?
New research has been re-evaluating the planet-friendliness of different foods and meat is a big beneficiary.
The imbalance between the environmental impact of different foods has always been questionable and over-simplistic. It has also for a long time been skewed by anti-meat propaganda that exaggerated the negative impacts of meat whilst amplifying the claims that a plant-based diet creates much lower emissions.
This interpretation has now been challenged by a new study from Rothamstead Research. Their study suggests that previous comparisons are flawed because they take no account of nutrition and the impact on human health, especially in relation to protein quality.
Protein is a highly complex nutrient comprising a variety of amino acids that cannot be reproduced directly by humans and must come from dietary sources. Meat is the best source of easily digestible high- quality protein. Plant-based foods are inferior in this respect and also often contain other factors which can inhibit or restrict nutrient uptake.
Rothamstead Research say that that the environmental impact of beef and dairy is halved by a proper assessment that includes protein quality. Other foods fare less well using this assessment model. The environmental impact of white bread for example increases by 60%.
Ultra processed foods and cancer risk
Meanwhile, research by Imperial College, London has shown that ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of various cancers. That’s the conclusion from a study of almost 200,000 people aged between 40 and 69.
Professor Tim Spector, a well-known epidemiologist at King’s College, London commenting on the research said,
’The problem is that we don’t know enough about the impact that the cocktail of chemicals found in ultra-processed foods (UPF’s) has on us. While the individual additives have all been tested for basic safety in humans, their impact on our health when combined and eaten daily is unknown.’
Spector says that the tell-tale signs of a UPF are an unusually long shelf life, and ten or more ingredients that you are unable to understand.
Plant-based ultra processed foods
Ultra-processed foods come in a large variety of guises and one of worst offenders are plant-based foods.Plant-based burgers and ready meals etc have increased in popularity as a response to the climate crisis, but they can often contain very little nutritional value, despite their green/natural claims.
Other recent scientific comment has further enhanced the benefits of meat and the dangers of alternatives.
Richard Hoffman, a nutrition expert at the University of Hertfordshire points out that while meat is important in a normal omnivore diet because it provides us with vital nutrients like amino acids, iron and zinc, plant-based burgers contain very little of them.
‘One of the main amino acids in the plant protein is destroyed during the processing,’ he says,
‘So instead you tend to get this purified soya protein held together with various binders, emulsifiers and flavourings.’
Talking recently on Radio 4’s Inside Health programme Dr Giles Yeo, an obesity expert at Cambridge University said,
‘Because these foods are so ultra-processed they lack flavour, so you have to create it by adding salt, sugar and fat. This also makes them hyper-palatable.’
‘In countries which have more ultra-processed foods, there is an increase in obesity and other diet related illnesses,’ says Giles.
‘But ultra-processed vegetarian or vegan foods, faux-meat burgers, they almost have an aura, a halo of health around them,’ says the obesity expert. ‘They’re ultra-processed foods with very good PR.’
Future for Plant-Based Foods
The sales growth of these products has slowed down considerably this year and some of the big corporations involved are laying off staff amid falling share prices and profit warnings.
NCB Technical Manager Richard Stevenson points out that,
‘This downfall seems initially due to consumer resistance, who just don’t like the product. Every butcher knows that the customer is King, but it seems these large corporations have not realised that. You can only go so far in trying to create a market through hype.
The bubble is starting to burst and I believe as well that science will increasingly make the public aware of the health and environmental benefits of meat and the disadvantages of UPF’s.’