More and more meat substitutes can be found on supermarket refrigerated shelves: soy burgers, vegetable nuggets, pea protein-based ground beef and vegan sausage slices seem to be becoming more and more popular. Those who want to eat more environmentally conscious often use meat substitutes – after all, producing meatless alternatives generally releases significantly less greenhouse gas than chicken, pork or beef. This is exactly why the Federal Environment Agency now wants to reduce the VAT for meat substitute products as part of the new “Relief Package for Climate and Environment” from 19 percent to 7 percent. But how healthy are these meat substitutes for our body?
Plant-based climate-friendly meat and vegan white sausages for Oktoberfest
“We have tried to develop the most sustainable plant-based meat in the world that does not require a cold chain. The good thing about our products is that you mix them with water and oil to form a mass of minced meat. You can always have it at home, it has a shelf life of more than two years and I no longer throw away food”, says Thomas Isermann, founder of the Munich company Greenforce. Since 2020, the company has been making vegan meat substitutes, from gyros to fish sticks. The company is also developing a vegan white sausage for Oktoberfest. Thomas Isermann says: “Our white sausage has 80 percent fewer calories, 70 percent fewer carbohydrates and no cholesterol. It’s healthy and tastes great.”
Climate change: meat substitutes are more climate friendly than meat
Plant-based alternatives not only have a longer shelf life than meat, but are also better for the climate. According to the Federal Environment Agency, poultry production produces about three times more climate-damaging carbon dioxide than production of substitute soy-based products. And with beef, 28 times the amount of CO2 is released.
Florian Humpenöder investigates the potential of meat substitutes at the Institute for Climate Research in Potsdam. He says: “Although animal products provide only about a third of the protein required for human nutrition, the production of these animal products occupies more than eighty percent of the world’s agricultural land.”
In Germany, the distribution of agricultural land is also not necessarily designed for a meatless diet. Because currently about sixty percent of the agricultural area of this country is used for animal feed. Only twenty percent of the area is used for direct human consumption, that is, for the cultivation of cereals and vegetables. Therefore, according to Florian Humpenöder, switching to more meat substitutes would primarily reduce the need for agricultural land for animal feed. And that would have several advantages, according to the scientist: “Significantly less intensive agriculture and livestock could be achieved. The nitrate load in the soil could be reduced. You could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would have benefits for species conservation and biodiversity conservation.”
Meat substitutes: between astronaut food and plant-based ingredients
So meat substitutes initially sound like a good thing: They taste good and are more climate-friendly than meat. However, there is a “but”: What about health compatibility? Matthias Riedl is Medical Director of Medicum in Hamburg, a medical competence center focused on nutritional medicine. He is critical of meat substitute products.
According to him, it is necessary to distinguish which meat substitute is put on the plate: “There are two types of meat substitutes. I call one the astronaut diet. More than a dozen individual substances are mixed in such a way that the final product looks like meat. The other is meat substitute products, in which plants such as beans, onions, or even mushrooms are cut into pieces and pressed into a patty. It’s a healthy substitute for meat, that’s fine.”
Meat substitutes full of artificial flavors and salt?
Riedl cites pea protein products as an example of “astronaut food”: “That sounds totally healthy. Pea protein sounds like peas, but it’s really just pea protein. The rest of the pea with its nutrients is not included.”
Another point of criticism is meat substitutes that contain artificial flavors. “These flavors are very poorly tested for food safety,” says Riedl. “In recent years, only six flavors have disappeared from the market due to their carcinogenic effect. So I would warn against any product that contains flavorings.”
Another problem: 100 grams of processed meat substitutes, like many other finished products, contain between one and two grams of salt; the World Health Organization recommends just five grams a day for an adult.
Simply put, the more a product is processed, the less nutrients and vitamins are left in the end. By the way, this applies not only to meat substitutes, but to all kinds of processed foods.
Meat substitutes cannot replace vegetables
So meat substitutes may be better for the climate than meat. But they are not necessarily healthy. The question arises: what should you eat then? And here the answer is that there are probably no more vegetables. “We need 500 grams of vegetables a day for a healthy diet. If you can’t do that, 200 or 300 grams is fine,” says Matthias Riedl. “But we know that the average German man eats about 100 grams of vegetables a day. Many don’t even eat an apple.”
Meat substitute products are also not a substitute for vegetables. Processed meat substitutes are a finished product that is hardly suitable for regular care. If you want to save some time when cooking, you can use meat substitutes from time to time. However, based on the current state of affairs, prepared meals should be seen more as a small luxury to bring some variety to the plant-based diet from time to time.