A new study out of the University of Bath, England says that plant-based meat and dietary alternatives help consumers become healthier and are undisputably better for the environment. Psychologists looked at 43 studies and found that consumers will try meat alternatives, even if they eat meat, as a way of deciding whether to go more plant-based, concluding that it's easier to "sell" them on the idea of a meat substitute than a vegan diet.

Published in Future Foods, the paper's authors suggest that because meat and dairy alternatives mimic the taste, texture, and experience of animal products, they are more effective at convincing people to give up meat and dairy than simply urging people to switch to a plant-based diet. The authors say that plant-based alternatives offer a "healthier and more environmentally sustainable solution which takes into account consumer preferences and behavior."

Data Shows Meat and Dairy Alternatives Are Effective Tools

The paper factored in research from 43 studies that looked at health and environmental factors as well as consumer attitudes, finding that 90 percent of consumers who tried plant-based meat and dairy were meat-eaters or self-defined "flexitarians" who try to minimize their animal intake but have not sworn off meat and dairy altogether.

Anything that helps consumers avoid saturated fat in animal products and eat more plant-based instead can help lower their risk of cardiovascular disease including heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke and can give them a chance at living longer.

Plant-Based Meat and Dairy is Healthier

Most plant-based products also are healthier, since they contain less saturated fat than traditional meat and dairy, studies have found. Saturated fat is associated with higher blood lipids and cholesterol which can lead to cardiovascular disease and death, according to a mountain of scientific evidence. The studies reviewed by the authors suggest that 40 percent of conventional meat products were classified as 'less healthy' compared to just 14 percent of plant-based alternatives on the UK's Nutrient Profiling Model.

Diets that are heavily reliant on animal products such as red meat. and processed meats have been linked to heart disease and cancer, including an increased risk of prostate cancer. One recent study found that people who eat red meat have an elevated risk of cancer, 14 percent higher than those who don't eat much meat.

Non-meat eaters had lower cancer rates

  • Men who were vegetarians showed a 31 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer, whereas pescatarians had a 20 percent lower risk.
  • Study participants who rarely ate meat had a 9 percent lower risk of showing signs of cancer later in life when compared to regular meat-eaters.
  • Vegetarian women had a lower risk of breast cancer by 18 percent, but this was wiped out if they had a high body mass index, so diet and weight both impacted breast cancer risk.

Red Meat is Classified as a Carcinogen

In 2015, the World Health Organisation classified red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen, after studies connected eating red meat with a higher incidence of colorectal cancer. Processed meat was also classified as a carcinogen, in Group 1, which signifies that studies show processed meat has been proven to cause cancer.

In the University of Bath's review of studies, the authors found that diets that rely on plant-based sources of protein have been beneficial to promote weight loss and build muscle mass. When formulating a plant-based product, it's possible to add healthy ingredients such as microalgae or spirulina which are high in both amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B and E as well as other beneficial antioxidants.

Factory Farming of Meat and Dairy Is Harmful to the Environment

Beyond helping consumers switch to a more meatless diet, the paper found that meat and dairy alternatives are better for the environment. These products allow consumers to make more sustainable choices because emissions from cow farming cause more CO2 and methane to be released into the air than plant-based crops.

Replacing just five percent of beef consumption in Germany with pea protein can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 8 million tons a year, one reviewed study found. Another study suggests that the CO2 equivalent produced by plant-based burgers is approximately 98 percent lower than that of beef.

"Increasingly, we're seeing how plant-based products are able to shift demand away from animal products by appealing to three essential elements consumers want: taste, price, and convenience," stated the lead author of the paper, Dr. Chris Bryant from the University of Bath.

"This review demonstrates overwhelming evidence that as well as being far more sustainable compared to animal products in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use, plant-based animal product alternatives also have a wide range of health benefits.

"Despite the incredible advances that plant-based producers have made over recent years, there is still huge potential to improve their taste, texture, and how they cook. There's also enormous potential to innovate with ingredients and processes to improve their nutritional properties – for example by boosting vitamin content."

More research is needed to make further improvements in the nutritional profile of meat and dairy substitutes – including not adding carrageenan and other chemicals to the formulas – so that consumers feel confident in their options as they try to stay away from meat.

For more expert advice, check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.