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The hype about meatless burgers

Could the rising popularity of plant-based meat change the future of food consumption?

There’s a new craze in the food industry: fake meat. More specifically, many companies and restaurants are now making plant-based burgers that are meant to taste just like beef.   

Often containing processed pea or soy protein, these new meatless burgers can offer insight into the future of food sustainability. 

Meat-free demand 

Hannah Jozsa, a first-year science student at Dalhousie University, cut meat out of her diet when she was 16. She decided shortly after to become a vegan.  

“I was raised in a family that really cared about animals and eating ethically,” Jozsa says. “Even when I was eating meat, it was always locally-sourced.”  

Jozsa is not alone in her switch to a vegan diet. Last year, Dal published a survey that found the number of adult Canadians who considered themselves vegetarian had increased from 900,000 in 2003 to 2.3 million in 2018. Another 850,000 people identified as vegan.  

“It’s really cool that there are fast food places with plant-based meat now,” Jozsa says. “It makes it so easy to go out with friends because before I’d have to worry about not having any options.” 

Indeed, fast food restaurants seem to be making an effort to meet an increasing demand for meat-free options.  

In this image: The front of an A&W location.
In July 2018, A&W began offering a plant-based burger called the Beyond Meat Burger. Photo by Elizabeth Foster

In July 2018, A&W began offering a plant-based burger made in partnership with Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based company that produces plant-based meat substitutes. Up until September 2019, Tim Hortons was also serving burgers made with Beyond Meat, but discontinued the burgers (supposedly due to low sales). Burger King now offers a meatless Whopper it made in collaboration with Impossible Foods, another company making plant-based “meat.” 

Interestingly, these new meatless options are not only targeted toward vegetarians and vegans. Data from the NPD group, a United States marketing company, shows that people who eat meat are enjoying plant-based burgers, too. Some reviewers say these plant-based burgers do almost taste the same as real beef, but opinions still vary at this point

Environmental impact 

As plant-based meat becomes more popular among consumers of all diets, the question arises of what impact these products could have on the environment. 

Nicole Arsenault, a PhD student at Dal whose area of research is in food sustainability, says red meat and dairy are some of the least sustainable food resources, emitting the most greenhouse gasses and taking up the most space to produce.  

“What an increasing amount of research is showing is that a plant-based diet has a lower environmental impact,” says Arsenault.  

 According to Arsenault, the sustainable aspect of plant-based meat may be incredibly important in providing food for the future world population.  

 “We could have 10 billion humans on the planet by 2050, and they all deserve to eat,” Arsenault says. “So, how will the human family feed ourselves and take care of each other?” 

Making the switch  

Though cutting out red meat and dairy is typically a healthier choice both for the individual and the environment, Arsenault acknowledges that it’s unrealistic to expect everybody to switch to veganism. She says different groups of people, both inside and outside of Canada, have different abilities to switch to a plant-based diet.  

It can be hard for university students in particular to commit to a vegan diet. Jozsa struggles with this while living in residence.  

“The salad bar is great – my lunches are always so good. But for dinner there’s not a lot of variety, which is fine but it’s not super exciting meals,” Jozsa says.  

For students living off-campus and on a tight budget, Arsenault recommends buying frozen and canned vegetables, which are usually inexpensive. When deciding on a source of protein, Arsenault recommends choosing foods that have a lower environmental impact during their production, such as seafood or plant-based burgers. 

Health 

While many meatless burgers may have a lesser negative impact on the environment than beef burgers, these plant-based meats are not necessarily a healthier option for the human body. 

As reported by Huffington Post, the plant-based burger patties from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have about the same levels of saturated fat as beef patties. The patties from these companies do have high levels of protein, but they are highly processed. According to the latest version of Canada’s Food Guide, people should try to limit their consumption of highly processed foods. 

“We should see burgers as a treat food,” Arsenault says. “Regardless of what they’re made of.” 

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Elizabeth Foster

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