More alternative meat products are launching as manufacturers hope to capitalise on consumer demand to cut meat for health and environmental reasons. However, the body, which advises policy makers and on bioethics, said more evidence is needed to determine if meat alternatives really are more sustainable and healthier than conventional meat in the long-term.
Some meat alternatives offer health benefits over conventional meat, such as providing fibre and less cholesterol, it said. However, ‘these products are usually highly processed and can contain the same amount of calories and saturated fat as beef burgers, and high levels of sodium’.
As for their environmental impact, “Meat alternatives look promising in terms of taking up fewer natural resources than intensive livestock farming, although this will depend on the energy requirements of production and whether the ingredients used involve intensive crop agriculture,” the report said.
"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 implications for the environment and health.”
Calls for clearer labelling
Hugh Whittall, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said the group is calling for ‘clear marketing and labelling about the ingredients, nutritional content and processes involved, as well as transparency in the sources of ingredients and their sustainability, so that people can make informed choices about what they’re buying’.
“We need a lot more evidence to assess their true impact in the longer term. 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.”
He added: “People choose meat alternatives for a number of reasons – including health, environmental impact or animal welfare. It might be that people will be willing to trade-off the health aspects if they know they are helping the environment, but marketing them as ‘clean’ or ‘green’ might mean people overlook the health implications.”
“In an ideal world, we would like to see food companies produce alternative meat products that are healthy and sustainable, for conventional meat production to be focused on greater sustainability, and for people to make informed choices towards healthier, sustainable diets.”
Cultured meat alternatives, which are grown from the cells of an animal and seek to imitate meat without the slaughter of animals, are not yet available to buy but are in a rapid phase of development. Whittall said cell-based meat was an ‘exciting area of development and has the potential to disrupt meat production by changing the way meat is manufactured.’
“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,” he observed.