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Issues Of The Environment: UM Study Shows Plant-Based Burgers Are More Eco-Friendly Than Meat

Impossible Burger
Wikipedia Media Commons

Across the country, rapid expansion of plant-based foods is being seen in restaurants and stores.  Would a continuing shift away from meat-based foods help the environment?  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair looks for the answer to that question in a conversation with Dr. Martin Heller, a research specialist with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.


  • In the past year, the popularity of meatless burger substitutes that look, cook, (even bleed), and taste like beef has exploded.  Brand names like the “Impossible Burger” and “Beyond Meat”burger are suddenly available at many restaurants in Washtenaw County, and even Burger King is selling a version. 
  • Unlike the veggie burger of the past, these high-tech, plant-based burgers are not aimed at vegetarians.  Instead, they are designed to be as similar in taste and texture to a beef burger as possible, and their goal is to help the meat-eating consumer replace some meat purchases.
  • Then, the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems was commissioned to do a comparative analysis of the Beyond Burger vs. a same-size beef patty.  They found that “a comparative assessment of the current Beyond Burger production system with the 2017 beef LCA by Thoma et al, the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.”
  • Martin’s previous research looked at the relative environmental impacts of different diets.  They found that Americans that eat the most meat are responsible for nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food consumption, and that beef consumption accounted for nearly 3/4 of those emissions. 
  • Dr. Marty Heller, Research Specialist with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, grew up on a traditional livestock farm in southeast Michigan.  For the past 10 years, he has assisted new farmers and CSA’s while growing organic vegetables on his own farm.

UM Comparative Analysis

Beyond Meat commissioned the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan to conduct a “cradle-to-distribution” life cycle assessment of the Beyond Burger, a plant-based patty designed to look, cook, and taste like fresh ground beef.  The purpose of the study is to compare environmental impacts – chosen here as greenhouse gas emissions, cumulative energy demand (energy use), water use, and land use – with those from typical beef production in the U.S.  A secondary purpose is to highlight opportunities for improvement in the environmental performance of the Beyond Burger product chain and provide Beyond Meat with a benchmark against which improvement efforts can be measured.  The primary audiences are both internal stakeholders at Beyond Meat as well as external customers, consumers, and interested stakeholders.

The Beyond Burger is considered functionally and nutritionally similar to beef; therefore the chosen functional unit for comparison was defined as 4 oz. (quarter pound, 0.113 kg) uncooked burger patty delivered to retail outlets.  This is the marketed patty size of the Beyond Burger and a standard consumer product size for beef patties.  System boundaries included upstream ingredient and raw material supply (including farm production of agricultural crops), processing and packaging operations, cold storage, distribution to point of sale, and disposal of packaging materials.  Retail and consumer stages, including potential losses at those stages, were excluded, as they were considered equivalent in both product systems. Beyond Meat provided specific information on production of the Beyond Burger, including directly measured processing electricity consumption.  This was complemented with information from primary ingredient suppliers.  Environmental impact of U.S. beef production was drawn from an existing LCA study commissioned by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (Thoma et al., 2017).  The Beyond Burger LCA was evaluated using the same impact assessment methods used in the U.S. beef study.

Based on a comparative assessment of the current Beyond Burger production system with the 2017 beef LCA by Thoma et al, the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.

Production of the dominant ingredients – pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil – represent important contributions to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), energy use, and land use.  Packaging also is an important contributor across all impact categories: the polypropylene tray is the largest contributor to packaging’s share of GHGE, energy use, and water use, whereas fiber production for cardboard and pallets make notable contributions to land use. We estimate that switching to a polypropylene tray made of 100% postconsumer recycled content could reduce the overall GHGE of the BB life cycle by 2% and reduce energy use by 10%. 

The High Environmental Cost of the Americain Diet

On any given day, 20 percent of Americans account for nearly half of U.S. diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, and high levels of beef consumption are largely responsible, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan and Tulane University.

To estimate the impact of U.S. dietary choices on greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers built a database that assessed the environmental impacts involved in producing more than 300 types of foods. Then they linked the database to the findings of a nationally representative, one-day dietary recall survey involving more than 16,000 American adults.

They ranked the diets by their associated greenhouse gas emissions, from lowest to highest, then divided them into five equal groups, or quintiles.  The researchers found that the 20 percent of U.S. diets with the highest carbon footprint accounted for 46 percent of total diet-related greenhouse emissions.

The highest-impact group was responsible for about eight times more emissions than the lowest quintile of diets.  And beef consumption accounted for 72 percent of the emissions difference between the highest and lowest groups, according to the study.

“A big take home message for me is the fact that high-impact diets are such a large part of the overall contribution to food-related greenhouse gases,” said U-M researcher Martin Heller, first author of a paper published March 20 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The study estimated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production only.  Emissions related to the processing, packaging, distribution, refrigeration and cooking of those foods were not part of the study but would likely increase total emissions by 30 percent or more, Heller said.

“Reducing the impact of our diets—by eating fewer calories and less animal-based foods—could achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It’s climate action that is accessible to everyone, because we all decide on a daily basis what we eat,” said Heller, a researcher at the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability.

If Americans in the highest-impact group shifted their diets to align with the U.S. average—by consuming fewer overall calories and relying less on meat—the one-day greenhouse-gas emissions reduction would be equivalent to eliminating 661 million passenger-vehicle miles, according to the researchers.

That hypothetical diet shift, if implemented every day of the year and accompanied by equivalent shifts in domestic food production, would achieve nearly 10 percent of the emissions reductions needed for the United States to meet its targets under the Paris climate accord, the authors wrote.  Though President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the accord, many states and municipalities are still working to meet the emissions targets.

In the United States in 2010, food production was responsible for about 8 percent of the nation’s heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.  In general, animal-based foods are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions per pound than plant-based foods.  The production of both beef cattle and dairy cows is tied to especially high emissions levels.

For starters, cows don’t efficiently convert plant-based feed into muscle or milk, so they must eat lots of feed.  Growing that feed often involves the use of fertilizers and other substances manufactured through energy-intensive processes. And then there’s the fuel used by farm equipment.

In addition, cows burp lots of methane, and their manure also releases this potent greenhouse gas.

“Previous studies of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions have focused mainly on the average diet in a given country.  This study is the first in the United States to look instead at self-reported dietary choices of a nationally representative sample of thousands of Americans,” said Diego Rose, principal investigator on the project and a professor of nutrition and food security at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

By linking their database of environmental impacts to the individual, self-reported diets in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the U-M and Tulane researchers were able to estimate the distribution of diet-related impacts across the entire U.S. population on a given day.

They found that Americans in the highest-impact quintile consumed more than twice as many calories on a given day—2,984 versus 1,323—than those in the bottom 20 percent. But even when the findings were adjusted for caloric intake, the highest-impact quintile was still responsible for five times more emissions than the lowest-impact group.

Meat accounted for 70 percent of the food-associated greenhouse gas emissions in the highest-impact group but only 27 percent in the lowest-impact group.

NHANES is a program of studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States.  The survey, which combines interviews and physical examinations, is a major program of the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The work reported in Environmental Research Letters was funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust.  Rose is the principal investigator; Heller and Gregory Keoleian of U-M’s Center for Sustainable Systems are co-principal investigators.

The other authors of the paper, in addition to Heller, Rose and Keoleian, are Amelia Willits-Smith of Tulane’s Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences, and Robert Meyer, formerly of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems.

What are meat alternatives? Veggie burgers have been around for a while — are these new products any different?

Meat alternatives aren’t new.  There have been veggie burgers available in grocery stores for a long time.

But the meatless meat products on the market today are different in one important way: An alternative meat, like a Beyond Meat burger or the Impossible Burger, is a product made from plants that is meant to taste like meat, be marketed to meat-eating customers, and replace some of those customers’ meat purchases. That’s what makes them different from veggie burgers, which have typically been aimed mostly at vegetarians.

There’s another kind of meat alternative on the horizon: so-called cell-based (or lab-grown, or cultured) meat products are made from real animal cells but are grown in a food production plant instead of taken from animals raised in captivity and slaughtered for consumption.  These aren’t on the market yet — and some are skeptical that they’ll work out — but they are meat alternatives too, and they might be part of the big picture as we try to move away from relying on factory farming to supply the meat consumers want.  (More on them below.)

Caroline Bushnell oversees retail research at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote meat alternatives. “Veggie burgers have been around for many decades,” she told me.  “Plant-based meats are still just getting started.  The next generation is really designed for meat eaters, so the stakes are higher for what the products need to deliver on.  People really like the taste of meat.  Instead of trying to convince them to eat a kale and quinoa bowl, why not try to make meat for them in a better way?”

The rise of meat alternatives was driven, researchers and marketing experts told me, by one realization: that alternative meats didn’t have to be a niche product just for vegans or vegetarians, who make up about 3 percent of the US population.  There are lots of Americans who are meat eaters and always will be, but who are up for trying plant-based products as long as they’re tasty, cheap, and nutritious.  Those consumers, not vegetarians and vegans, would be the target of the next generation of meat alternatives.

The teams behind meat alternatives work to ensure their products have the flavor, macronutrient balance, and cooking experience of meat.  The Impossible Burger famously bleeds, thanks to a meat protein called heme, which the company produces from yeast.

The leading companies that produce meatless meat products have actually gone out of their way to make sure their products won’t be tarred as just for vegetarians.  Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, for example, comes slathered in mayo — not vegan at all — and when I went to get an Impossible Burger at a San Francisco restaurant, nearly every selection paired it with bacon bits.

So that’s the big difference: Veggie burgers are a niche product targeted toward vegetarians.  But the makers of meatless meat are betting they can find their way onto everyone’s plate. 

Okay, but do they actually taste like meat?

Some of the leading meat alternatives on the market today are burgers, ground beef, and sausages from two companies: Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

“Both companies have really led with taste,” Zak Weston, an analyst at the Good Food Institute, told me.  Everyone agrees that taste will be the big make-or-break factor for these companies.  Does their meat really, actually taste like meat?

Food reviewers have delivered mixed verdicts so far. Reviewers at Food & Wine loved the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, and were less impressed with more traditional veggie burgers.  The Washington Post’s Tim Carman wrote, “the Impossible Whopper patty, all by itself, has more flavor than the meaty one,” though he noted that while you can’t tell the difference on the first bite, you can tell eventually.

Adam Rothbarth at Thrillist was less impressed, writing that his burger had been overcooked and as a result, “it’s very one-note in its flavor and texture ... the question shouldn’t be whether it tastes like a Whopper (it does), it should be whether it tastes good (not especially).”

It’s fair to say that we’re at the point where whether Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat taste like meat to a given person depends on that person, and the specifics they pay attention to in their food experience.  It’s good enough for some, but not good enough for all — yet.

Martin Heller

Martin Heller most recent research interest involves integrating nutritional information into environmental impact assessments of food and diet.  He has conducted life cycle assessment studies of short rotation woody biomass energy crops (upstate NY DOE willow demonstration project), a large-scale vertically integrated US organic dairy (Aurora Organic Dairy), and as part of an international team, a comprehensive, spatially-explicit study of US dairy production for Dairy Research Institute.  He also developed a seminal report on Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U. S. Food System.  As a researcher at the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU, Marty investigated the ecological services provided by pasture-based and confinement-based dairies, and developed a “community food profile” intended to frame for a general audience the opportunities of a community-based food system.  He received a BS in chemical engineering from Michigan State and a PhD, also in chemical engineering, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Marty has spent much of the past 10 years growing organic vegetables, starting and managing market farms/CSAs.  Through a local non-profit, he is currently developing a Farmer Residency program to assist new farmers in gaining farm management experience.  He grew up on a traditional livestock farm in southeast Michigan. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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