Beyond Meat offers its products as a healthy, cruelty free and environmentally superior alternative to beef. But is it?
Read on and you might be surprised what you learn.
Plant-based burgers are nothing new. What is new is plant based food specifically designed to taste and feel like real meat, enter Beyond Meat.
By marketing to meat eaters, these upstart brands have a much larger financial opportunity.
I’m not against plant based meat. I think it’s important for each of us to address our relationship with meat. How is it serving us? Do we need it? If we do, how much is necessary?
Most of us in the west could probably benefit from eating less meat. But the caveat I always mention is this: eating less meat misses the point if the meat you do eat is from factory-farmed operations.
We should not be supporting factory farmed beef meat operations.
What we must support is smaller scale farmers who are practising regenerative agriculture.
Beyond Meat chooses to lump all meat into one bucket: vilifying the whole industry. This tribalist thinking creates a powerful “us vs. them” approach to brand building. It paints the picture that all meat is bad, and we are the knight in shining armour here to save you. This type of marketing is damaging to our society.
In reality, there are many shades. You can get meat from small scale farms who farm in a way that is a net positive to our planet and climate change.
The marketing angle Beyond Meat uses is three-fold:
- Portraying a healthier alternative to beef options.
- Appealing to animal cruelty and ethical treatment of animals.
- Branding beyond meat as an environmentally friendly alternative to other meat.
But is it?
I’ll outline each of these below and see if we can come to some conclusions.
Beyond Meat vs. Beef Nutrition For Your Health
Regardless of dietary preference, we can agree that eating real food is healthier and safer than processed food. Is Beyond Meat Burger real food? Let’s take a look.
The ingredients are processed vegetable oils, MSG mimicking flavour additives, artificial colours and chemical thickeners and binders. In other words, it is difficult to say that Beyond Meat is not an ultra-processed food.
The ingredients used have been compared to those in dog food. That is a hyperbole, but you get the point. There is some overlap.
Let’s break down the ingredients.
Beyond Meat Ingredient List:
Water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, contains 2% or less of the following: cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, natural flavor, maltodextrin, yeast extract, salt, sunflower oil, vegetable glycerin, dried yeast, gum arabic, citrus extract (to protect quality), ascorbic acid, succinic acid, modified food starch, annatto (for colour).
Water - a surprising first ingredient.
Pea protein isolate - a chalky, flavourless powder that needs a lot of moisture to be edible. This accounts for the protein in Beyond Meat because it is the cheapest form of plant based protein with 9 essential amino acids that is not soy.
One possible issue is that plant based proteins tend to be less bioavailable than meat based (1). Meaning that you may not absorb all of the amino acids from plant sources the way you do from meat sources.
There’s early evidence that an increase in concentrated forms of pea protein could lead to allergies to peas.
Canola Oil - 50 years ago you would have found it only in mechanics' shops as engine lubricant. Somehow food manufacturers convinced us to eat it.
90% of the canola in Canada and 87% of canola in the US is GMO (Genetically Modified) (2, 3). Note: Beyond Meat uses Non-GMO Canola.
Consuming canola oil is linked to impaired learning and worsened memory in Alzheimer’s disease (4). It is also theorized to be a hidden cause of diabetes and heart disease (5).
Let’s not get too crazy though. Canola is generally recognized as safe. Moreover, Beyond Meat uses expeller pressed canola, meaning it is mechanically extracted from rapeseed as opposed to extracted using industrial solvents. I appreciate them for this.
So it is up to you to do your own research and decide if you’d like to use it.
Refined Coconut Oil - Refined coconut oil suggests that it has been purified, but in reality it has been further processed than virgin or cold-pressed coconut oil. They use heat, extraction and bleaching to remove the coconut flavour notes.
The next group are the same ingredients used to make glutamic acid which is specifically designed to mimic the taste and behaviour of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate).
This is clever but not surprising given the addictive qualities of MSG. Those who are sensitive to MSG may also get similar symptoms from the following ingredients:
Yeast Extract - Often used to mimic meat flavour. Adds flavour and a ton of sodium to foods.
Natural Flavours - aka Autolyzed Yeast. Common in processed meat products. Also a sodium bomb.
Pay special attention to headaches or hives after eating these foods. These ingredients are not identical to MSG, but they are ingredients used to make MSG.
Cellulose, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Arabic Gum, Maltodextrin
These can all be lumped into binding ingredients. They are the gum that holds ingredients together. They also act as a thickener and emulsifier in highly processed foods.
Citrus Extract, Ascorbic Acid, Succinic Acid
Preservatives and flavouring agents that are found in many processed foods. Succinic Acid is usually used to make plastic and in industrial applications instead of food.
Sunflower Seed Oil - a staple in almost all processed and packaged foods. High in omega-6 fats.
Vegetable Glycerin - likely needed to add more moisture to the burger, since pea protein is quite chalky.
“Used to avoid any unwanted grey colour.” - Dariush Ajami, Ph.D, CIO at Beyond Meat.
Nutrition Facts: Beyond Meat vs. Beef Burger
Beyond Meat burger patty comes in at 4 ounces or 113 grams. We will compare it to a 80/20 beef burger of the same size raw, but after it has been cooked. I used 80/20 because that yields similar fat to Beyond Meat.
Leaner beef will have less fat, more protein and roughly the same amounts of crucial vitamins and minerals.
As you can see there are 12% more calories in Beyond Meat.
There is 18g of fat in Beyond Meat compared to 15g of fat in beef. Saturated fat is the similar, at 5 g and 6 g respectively. The beyond meat burger patty comes with 5 g of carbs and 2 g of fiber, while beef has 0.
The big thing that stands out in this comparison is sodium. Because of the yeast extracts and natural flavours, Beyond Meat has 4X the sodium at 380 mg of Sodium which is 16% of your recommended daily intake. Beef has 64 mg which is 3% of RDI.
As for protein, they both have 20 g per serving. Pea protein has a great balance of all essential amino acids, meaning that Beyond Meat is a quality protein source.
Key Vitamins and Minerals in Beyond Meat vs. Beef
Beyond Meat packs 20 % of your daily iron compared to 11% for beef. The caveat is that plant based sources of iron are non-heme and are less absorbed than meat based sources.
Some research suggests you need to consume 3x the amount of non-heme iron to get comparable absorption to heme (or animal based) iron sources (6).
Beyond Meat has more calcium (100 mg vs. 18 mg) than beef. However, once we get beyond calcium into important vitamins and minerals to your health, Beyond Meat lacks all of these.
Beef has B6, choline, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium while beyond meat has none of these.
Beyond Meat provides no Vitamin B12, compared to 102% of your daily value for beef. B12 is impossible to get on vegan diets without fortified foods or supplements, so it’s a bit strange they didn’t fortify the burger with it.
There is no cholesterol in Beyond Meat, compared to 77 mg in a beef burger — about one-quarter of your recommended daily intake.
Climate Change: Is Beyond Meat Better for the Environment?
One pillar Beyond Meat stands behind is that their plant based options are environmentally friendly compared to beef.
They specifically mention you can do your part to combat climate change by eating Beyond Meat products. There are facts and figures displayed on their website suggesting Beyond Meat uses 99% less water and 93% less land than a beef burger.
The basis for these claims are a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) report that they commissioned (5). LCA is an environmental accounting system -- a way to add up all the environmental impacts when a product is produced from start to final disposal.
The reason I bring this up is because there are flaws in their assessment.
1. Land Footprints
Land footprints don’t tell us the suitability of the land to be used for multiple things. They also don’t address ecosystem services: benefits that humans get from nature and wildlife. This is critical for sustainability.
Most land used for beef cattle production is grazed land that cannot be used for crops. If it were used for crops it would be harmful -- leading to erosion and loss of soil.
Think of the land in Texas or Northern Africa. Lot’s of dry dirt, not nutrient rich soil. Try to plant crops on this and you’re in for a rude awakening.
The LCA from Beyond Meat lumps all land into one bucket.
A great way to generate food from this uncroppable land is to use cattle, sheep or goats. You physically can’t put plants on this land.
2. Water Use
99% of water footprints are attributed to producing feed for cows (7). Drinking water for the cow used less than 1 %, same with water used in processing. Feed production largely uses ‘green water (8).’ Green water is rainwater. This is where you see grossly inflated numbers.
For example: if we have 300,000,000 acres of grazing land in Canada, all of the rain and snowfall that falls on that land which is occupied by cattle part of the year is added to the footprint for a hamburger.
This is flawed because this rain will fall regardless of whether there is cattle on this land.
Also, cattle are only eating a fraction of the plants that are growing with that green water on the land. And with that, they are urinating and putting back nutrients into this land.
The question is: are cattle removing water from this system, or merely cycling it? LCA’s don’t account for this in their assessment, making the numbers look really bad.
Pasture Raised Beef Environmental Impact
Now that I’ve explained how LCA’s work and how the land and water use may not be accurate, let’s take a deeper look at pasture raised beef’s environmental impact.
Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming operations. It’s mission is to increase our resilience to climate change by: regenerating top soil, improving biodiversity, the water cycle and ecosystem services and rebuilding healthy soil.
The LCA shows that regeneratively managed beef farms can not only offset carbon emissions but be a net positive to climate change. This is... shocking. More on how below.
Now let’s compare those results to Beyond Meat.
Quantis determined that the regenerative beef farm produces net total emissions of -3.5 pounds of carbon for every pound of beef produced.
This is compared to 2 pounds of carbon emissions produced per pound of Beyond Meat burger. I’ll note that conventional beef was measured at 33 pounds of carbon per pound of beef produced.
Hopefully you know where I stand on conventional meat at this point.
At a basic level, years of regenerative farming practices makes soil so rich in nutrients and vitality that it creates a massive carbon sink. It captures more emissions than the cows create.
The key to creating positive environmental impact from farming? Cattle and other large ruminants. Why?
Cattle can elevate the organic carbon in soil which increases its health and vitality. They walk around and provide nutrient rich manure to build up soil. Thanks to Diana Rodgers for such a great illustration of this process.
This eventually enhances biodiversity by attracting more wildlife to the area. The whole ecosystem thrives.
Moreover, cattle on land means that large monocrop operations are not on the same land.
Monocrop (mono=one) are large industrial crop operations. Historically in Canada, produce corn and soy. But now pea production is getting huge.
Pea production uses industrial tillage operations, which strips nutrients from soil, making it unhealthy and unusable in the future. They take and take until the soil is unusable.
FAO estimates we have destroyed one third of all soil on earth and have only 60 years of harvest seasons left before we completely kill our soil (10).
Monocrop operations and also rely on heavy herbicide and pesticide use from Monsanto. This is because they’ve degraded the soil so much that they need these chemicals to get anything from the soil.
Regenerative agriculture will minimize the damage from tillage and herbicides and pesticides used by monocrop operations that mainly produce corn and soy.
Animal Welfare And Ethics
A big reason why many are plant-based is due to animal cruelty concerns (11). I agree that Beyond Meat is a better alternative from an animal welfare perspective compared from industrial factory-farmed meat.
What about beef from regenerative farming systems who are pasture raised and eat grass?
What you’ll find interesting is how no one talks about the deaths from farming peas (or any other industrially cultivated vegetable).
Pea farming has quickly become industrialized agriculture, much like corn and soy. Due to the increased demand for pea protein, this industry has hatched massive industrial monocropping farm operations (12).
These large-scale farming operations are responsible for hundreds of millions of animal deaths every year. They also displace wildlife from their natural habitats whenever new land is cleared to plant more peas.
Is there a morally relevant difference between the death of field-dwelling animals and farm-dwelling animals? Is it acceptable to eat products that cause death to millions of field mice, deer, rabbits, coyotes merely because people don’t know about it as opposed to beef that is widely publicized?
A partial list of animals of the farm field in the Canada/USA include:
- Vole opossum
- European starling
- Numerous species of amphibians (13)
To produce crops requires field operations that include plowing, disking, tilling, herbicides, pesticides, planting, cultivating and harvesting.
These all kill field living animals.
For example, mowing alfalfa caused a 50% decline in gray-tailed vole population (14).
Rat populations on a large sugar farm in Hawaii were decreased 77% during harvest (15).
Since these animals are seen as expendable, there are few scientific studies that measure agriculture's effects on their population.
There’s been estimates between 52% and 77% death rate per year of all kinds of animals that make their homes on fields during agriculture production (16).
If you’ve seen the turbines used to plough pasture land, you get the idea. Animals are routinely dismembered or maimed and left for birds to eat. Also, rodents in particular are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year.
There are reports that mouse population density dropped from 25 per hectare pre-harvest to less than 5 per hectare post harvest (17).
In 2019, Canada planted 1.6 million hectares worth of dry peas. The USA numbers are a bit lower at 416,000 hectares (18).
Let’s do some quick math.
If we use the 25 mice per hectare population rate combined with a 60% mortality rate (a conservative measure), we come up with 15 mice deaths per year per hectare of land.
In Canada this comes out to 24 million mice deaths per year for pea production alone. And this is only mice. Not the 9 other animals I listed above. Other estimates have it closer to 100 mice deaths per year per hectare.
This fails to account for federal or state sponsored agriculture animal control programs which kill millions of bears, cougars, wolves, etc every year.
How about cows? Each year in Canada we process 3.7 million cattle (19). Cows are killed instantly while poisoned rodents suffer a long and horrible death. Far fewer lives killed per kg of food.
Peas are only one ingredient in Beyond Meat. But hopefully you get my point. Beyond Meat burgers are responsible for animal deaths.
The larger point here is that these are complex issues that can’t be explained simply. There are massive implications to whatever we consume. Replacing beef with plant-based sources causes greater suffering and more sentient animal deaths.
Exclusively relying on grain and plant based pulses (like peas and soy) threatens native species, leads to at least 7x more animal deaths. It also destroys native ecosystems and soil.
While Beyond Meat should be applauded for their innovation and mission, I worry we are taking a step back. We should not be replacing real food with ultra processed foods.
The human body is incredibly smart but complex. We know from research that eating whole foods provides more nutrition than identical amounts of synthetic vitamins and minerals (20). There is something about the harmony of whole foods that our body knows how to absorb.
Introducing novel, processed foods often brings about unintended consequences. The problem is that we may not know the full extent of the long-term effects for years down the line.
Lastly, this is about how they market Beyond Meat against hard-working farmers. You’ve just read how regeneratively managed beef systems can create a net positive for the environment. Beyond Meat’s ingredient list is negative.
They publicly describe the beef sector as filthy, as inhumane, as unsafe. That is just intentionally misleading.
During a time when we need to come together to solve global, species defining problems, they choose to use reductionist and tribal tactics.
Are you as torn as I am? The challenge for the ethical eater is to eat in a way that causes the least amount of death and environmental damage. Oh yea, all this while covering our nutritional bases for health and longevity.