The Environmental and Nutritional Impacts of a Plant-Based Diet and How the Beyond Burger Plays a Role
Ayush Kumar, Lizzie Akfaly
Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Research Questions | Benefits | Methodology | Essential Amino Acids (EAA) Concentration | Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) | Beyond Burger Nutrition | Beyond Burger LCA | Ecological Footprint Calculator | Results | Discussion | Recommendations | Citations | Authors
We are a team of nutrition experts and environmental scientists from Beyond Meat advocating for a plant-based diet. To do so effectively, we highlight the health benefits of plant-based eating and address common concerns like the lack of protein from plant sources and being deficient in certain vitamins. By discussing Essential Amino Acid (EAA) Concentrations and Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), we establish that plant-based diets are nutritionally whole and contain all nine essential amino acids that are obtained from meat.
Additionally, we introduce the Beyond Burger as a plant-based meat alternative that tastes like meat and is healthier as compared to beef. Beyond Burgers, as well as alternative meat in general, can be used in a plant-based diet in order to limit animal product consumption by replacing animal products with meat alternatives. Moreover, we rely on an extensive life cycle assessment (LCA) of our product, Beyond Burger, conducted by a team of researchers at University of Michigan (commissioned by Beyond Meat) to discuss the environmental sustainability of our product. By discussing the nutritional and environmental superiority of Beyond Burger over meat, we nudge environmentally-conscious consumers towards a plant-based diet and introduce Beyond Burger as a viable alternative to meat. To further emphasize the environmental viability of plant-based meat alternatives, we encourage our audience to try the Impossible Foods Impact Calculator and note how changes in their diet can lead to reduction in GHG emissions as well as land and water footprint.
Animal products have been known to affect the environment in a negative way - meat production is the leading pollutant with regards to greenhouse gas emissions, acidification and eutrophication as well as consumption of natural resources ( Djekic, 2015 ) Plant-based eating allows individuals to not only help the environment by limiting the amount of animal products consumed, but to help themselves improve their overall health. Plant-based eating has been studied heavily and has suggested that it can treat and even prevent chronic illnesses like obesity. Large concerns surrounding this diet are not getting enough protein and that plant protein does not compare to animal protein. This is proven false through measurements like the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) and analysing the essential amino acids (EAA) concentration.
Plant-based eating has become an increasingly popular diet recently, as it is highly beneficial to health, proven by the fact that it is used to treat and even prevent chronic illnesses. Plant-based eating carries a great deal of varying definitions, misconceptions, and stigma. Plant-based eating is characterized as a diet "high in foods including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with moderate consumption of dairy products, fish and poultry, and low consumption of refined grains and sugars, red and processed meats” (Kahleova, H., Barnard, N., & Levin, S., 2017).
Due to this diet being increasingly popular, many companies such as “Beyond Meat” have emerged to give those following plant-based diets an alternative to animal products in order to limit their meat consumption. In the United States, these are popular alternatives. Additionally, these alternatives have significant environmental sustainability benefits and use less resources than conventional meat. However, these plant-based meat alternatives bring up the concern of protein deficiencies and quality in those who consume these products since there is a stigma that plant-based protein is not “whole”. For that reason, we will consider the environmental impacts of these plant-based meat alternatives by analyzing life cycle assignments conducted in the continental United States. We will prove that plant-based eating has countless benefits through positive environmental impacts as well as health benefits. Furthermore, we will prove that plant-based eating, when followed properly, does not result in protein deficiencies and provides the individual following it with a plethora of health benefits. Finally, we show that our product, Beyond Burger, can aid in following a nutritional plant-based diet, through substituting/limiting meat consumption by consuming the Beyond Burger, or alternative meat in general.
- Are the alternative meats nutritionally “whole” as compared to animal meats?
- What are the nutritional and health benefits of following a plant-based diet?
- Are plant-based diets more environmentally sustainable compared to meat?
- Are popular plant-based meat alternatives, such as Beyond Burger, better for the environment?
Plant-based eating has the ability to improve overall health, and doctors use different styles of plant-based eating to prevent, manage, and even treat chronic illnesses. Obesity is an epidemic, and is considered a “public health crisis in the United States” (Newman, K., 2019). Obesity is the gateway issue to varying health illnesses, making it imperative to treat it with urgency. A common way doctors combat obesity is by implementing a Mediterranean diet to their patients. Mayo Clinic classifies this diet as including the daily consumption of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, weekly consumption of fish, beans, poultry, and eggs, moderate dairy intake, and limited red meat consumption (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2019). This type of diet is precisely what constitutes plant-based eating.
The results of the Mediterranean diet are overwhelmingly positive. A study showed that those who adhered minimally to the Mediterranean diet exhibited the highest average yearly weight gain, while those with the highest adherence had the lowest average weight gain ( Medina-Remón, A., Kirwan, R., Lamuela-Raventós, R. M., & Estruch, R., 2017). Furthermore, it was proven that BMI (body mass index), fat mass, and body weight were all reduced in a group of obese women who adhered to the Mediterranean diet, alongside an exercise program (Panagiotakos, D. B., Chrysohoou, C., Pitsavos, C. and Stefanadis, C., 2006). This correlates with a study finding vegetarians typically having lower BMI values than non-vegetarians, which is explained by the fact that BMI values are found to increase as animal product consumption increases (Berkow, S.E.; Barnard, N., 2006).
In order to show that plant-based diets are nutritionally complete, we use the following methods to show that plant based diets do indeed contain "whole" protein:
Protein quality of plants, and any food in general, can be measured through essential amino acid (EAA) concentrations. EEA concentrations modulate an increase in muscle protein synthesis rates after protein ingestion. The EAA content as well as amino acid (AA) composition of dietary protein source contribute to the differential muscle protein synthetic response to the ingestion of different proteins. A lower EAA corresponds to a lower anabolic capacity of plant-based protein to carry out protein synthesis in comparison to animal-based protein. A meta-analysis comparing EAA contents and AA composition was completed and concluded that EAA contents of plant-based protein isolates like oat, lupin, and wheat were lower than animal-based proteins like whey, milk, egg, and casein ( Bohé , et al., 2003). Methionine and lysine, two essential amino acids, were typically lower in plant-based proteins compared with animal-based proteins. Further research was conducted, and this study conducted by Bohé and his colleagues suggested that various plant-based protein isolates or blends of plant and animal-based proteins can provide protein characteristics that closely reflect typical characteristics of animal-based proteins, as seen through EAA levels. Again, this solidifies that plant-based eating does not provide a deficit of essential amino acids, as combining foods and not completely cutting out animal products results in a sufficient diet ( Bohé , et al., 2003).
Protein quality can also be evaluated by looking at the amino acids. A factor determining protein quality is whether or not there is a limiting amino acid. A limiting amino acid is an essential amino acid found is the shortest supply in a given protein source relative to the amount needed for protein synthesis. If any of the essential amino acids is limiting, existing proteins must be dismantled to obtain it.
Protein of high quality is called a complete protein, which is protein that contains all eight essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to support protein synthesis. Animal proteins like meat, fish, eggs are complete. Plant proteins are more likely to be incomplete, but soy and quinoa are complete plant-based proteins. Complementary proteins are those obtained from two sources of food that make up for each other’s inadequate supply of essential amino acids to make the incomplete protein complete.
To illustrate these definitions, bean’s limiting amino acid is methionine. A good plant source of the limiting amino acid are grains, nuts, and/or seeds. Furthermore, red beans and rice are actually proteins that complement each other, and it is beneficial to pair red beans with rice as to combat its amino acid limitation. This illustrates the concept of complementary proteins and limiting amino acids. Vegans must use complementary sources of proteins to ensure they are getting complete protein.
Another major factor determining protein quality is the digestibility. Protein digestibility is a measurement of the percentage of the ingested amino acids apparently absorbed through the intestinal wall from a given protein source. For a protein to be considered high quality or complete, is to have adequate levels of essential amino acids that support human growth and development and to be readily digested and absorbed. Figure 1 below lists indispensable (essential), dispensable, and conditionally indispensable amino acids in the human diet.
Figure 1: List of indispensable (essential), dispensable, and conditionally indispensable amino acids in the human diet as presented in Bohé et al (2003).
There are many methods used to assess protein quality, but amino acid scoring using the Protein Digestibility Correlated Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is the recommended method by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (Hertzler, et al., 2020).
The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is used to compare the essential amino acid content of a test/control protein to a theoretical reference protein to meet essential amino acid requirements for a given age group. This creates a ratio called the amino acid or chemical score. The essential amino acid with the lowest ratio is referred to as the most limiting amino acid and is corrected for fecal true digestibility of the protein.
To determine this, rats are fed a known amount of nitrogen from the test protein then fecal nitrogen excretion is measured, which represents apparent protein digestibility. The fecal nitrogen excretion from the rats on a protein-free diet is subtracted from fecal nitrogen excretion on the test protein, which accounts for the non-dietary protein nitrogen excretion from bacterial cells and digestive secretions. Figure 1 below shows this equation. A PDCAAS of <1.00 indicates that the protein is suboptimal, while a score of >1.00 is rounded to 1 and signifies the measurement of the protein value in human nutrition is as high as possible, hence it is a good source of protein. (Hertzler, et al., 2020)
Figure 2: Equation used to determine Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS)
Most animal proteins are at or near 1.00, making them considered complete protein sources for supporting essential amino acid requirements for growth and development. Plant proteins generally have insufficient levels of one or more essential amino acids. For example, legumes are frequently low in the sulfur-containing amino acids like methionine and cysteine. However, soy protein has a PDCAAS of 1.00 and quinoa, peas, and potatoes have a PDCAAS of at least 0.75. (Hertzler, et al., 2020)
Generally, many whole food, plant-based proteins are less calorically dense than animal sources of protein, which means greater overall food intake is needed to meet energy requirements. This helps to meet essential amino acid requirements for people following plant-based diets. Additionally, plant protein isolates and concentrates like soy, pea, etc., make it easier to boost plant proteins in the diet. Lastly, dietary protein variety is key for meeting essential amino acid requirements. Although PDCAAS of protein is critical when evaluating quality of sole-source protein, it becomes less significant when the diet contains proteins from different sources. For example, lysine is limiting in grain, but is a good source of sulfur-containing amino acids. Legumes are rich in lysine, but limiting in sulfur-containing amino acids. Consuming these two protein sources allow them to “complement” each other, as discussed previously, and helps meet requirements for essential amino acids. (Hertzler, et al., 2020)
Beyond Burgers are an alternative meat that resemble the taste, look, and even the macronutrients found in real beef burgers. Protein content of new plant-based burgers are very similar to beef and poultry content (Gelsomin, 2019). Beyond Burgers are made from peas and mung beans. Beyond Burgers fortify their proteins to make them more comparable to animal proteins by adding Vitamin B12 and zinc, which aid in making a plant-based diet more complete by adding a vitamin and mineral that are more difficult to get enough of on plant diet, because they are found mostly in animal products. However, those following plant-based diets still can get those and other vitamins and minerals that mainly are found in meat because the diet does not fully cut out animal products, it simply just limits it. Beyond Burger adds these vitamins in amounts either equal to or greater than red meat and poultry. This is also very beneficial to those following a plant-based diet because plants contain phytic acid which binds to minerals, and increases the requirements of zinc by 50%. This results in the need for more iron needed in the diet. (Gelsomin, 2019).
The macronutrients of the Beyond Burger in comparison to another meat alternative, the Impossible burger, and in comparison to a beef burger are shown in Figure 3 shown below. Although protein content and saturated fat levels in the Beyond Burger are similar to beef, sodium levels are higher in the plant-based burgers. Cholesterol is higher in beef, however. The protein health benefits in the plant-based burgers are somewhat blunted by the high level of processing of these burgers, but this is a topic that is not researched or studied nearly enough to draw conclusions from (Gelsomin, 2019).
Figure 3: Macronutrients compared between different alternative meats and a beef burger (Gelsomin, 2019).
Every kind of food production system requires the use of limited and valuable resources such as land, water and energy. Studies show that traditional meat production is considered an intrinsically inefficient process since 75-90% of energy used during production is either lost through excrements or is consumed during animal body growth and development (Röös et al, 2013). Additionally, meat production is the leading pollutant with regards to greenhouse gas emissions, acidification and eutrophication as well as consumption of natural resources (Djekic, 2015). In a study comparing different life cycle analysis for various livestock products, it was found that production of 1 kg of beef had the highest global warming potential, followed by pork, chicken, eggs and milk (de Vries & de Boer, 2010). Moreover, studies comparing plant-based and meat-based diets in the United States found that for a 3533 kcal per day diet, a plant-based diet is more sustainable than a meat-based diet. (Pimmentel & Pimmentel, 2003) Hence, given the monumental environmental impact of meat production systems, it is worthwhile to explore alternative diets that include plant-based meat alternatives and minimize or eliminate the consumption of meat.
Figure 4: Distribution of four impacts across life cycle stages of the Beyond Burger (Heller & Keoleian, 2018)
Figure 5: Relative comparison of impacts between beef (blue bars) and Beyond Burger (red bars) (Heller & Keoleian, 2018)
Of the many plant-based meat options, one such commercially available product is the Beyond Burger. Beyond burger is a meat alternative made from a variety of protein sources: peas, mung bean, faba bean and brown rice. In 2018, University of Michigan conducted a cradle-to-distribution life cycle assessment study (Heller & Keoleian, 2018) of the beyond burger and compared it to a similar sized beef patty on factors such as: upstream ingredients and raw material supply, processing and packaging operations, cold storage, storage to point of sale and disposal of packaging materials. The researchers performed an extensive study where they evaluated the greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, land use and water use for each major ingredient of the Beyond Burger as well as for every stage in processing, packaging and distributing the product.
The study states its main conclusion as, “ 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 non-renewable energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S beef.” Thus, from an environmental standpoint, using a convenient off-the-shelf plant-based meat alternative that tastes, feels and cooks like beef is significantly more environmentally sustainable than beef.
Through discussing the Mediterranean Diet and how it impacts human health, as well as discussing how plant-based eating does not result in protein deficiencies and constitutes a well balanced diet, it is evident that plant-based diets are a beneficial way of eating. Overall health is optimized when eating a plant-based diet, so implementation of plant-based nutrition into daily recommendations could alleviate medical struggles. Additionally, plant-based eating is more environmentally sustainable since it uses less land, water and energy. Since the food is obtained from plants and not from ruminant animals, there is a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. A proposed plant-based meat alternative, Beyond Burger is compared to traditional beef and is found to generate 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, require 46% less non-renewable energy, have >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use.
Diets are highly variable in individuals, so data regarding the relative effects of animal-based eating in comparison to plant-based eating is complicated by exactly what foods the individual is consuming. Whether it be westernized eating patterns typically consumed in the United States, or healthier eating patterns followed by adherence to health policy organizations, the diets of individuals vary greatly, and affects how certain foods affect them. This makes it difficult to draw concrete conclusions from data because of the lack of control in people’s diets.
In our literature review, we present findings from a life cycle assessment (LCA) of Beyond Burger conducted by a team of researchers at University of Michigan. An important fact to note about the reliability of this study is that it was funded by Beyond Meat, the company that creates Beyond Burgers. While the research looks very robust, we do not consider studies that suggest results competing with the interests of our organization and this can contribute to bias in our conclusions.
We recommend plant-based diets in order for a healthier population, future generations, and the world. The Beyond Burger can make it much easier for individuals to adhere to a plant-based diet by substituting meat consumption with consuming the Beyond Burger or other alternative meats. We recommend limiting meat consumption because not only will benefit the individual’s health, but the environment’s state as well. Limiting meat consumption occurs in plant-based diets, which emphasizes a whole-food, plant-based diet high in fruits, veggies, beans, and grains. These are nutrient dense foods and are a great source of antioxidants, whole carbohydrates, and natural sugars, optimizing overall health.
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Ayush grew up on a plant-based diet with lots of diverse options for protein sources such as pulses and legumes. Meat was never an important component of his daily diet but often used as a supplement (and for taste). However, 3 years ago when he moved to the United States for his education, he found that the American diet was heavily focused on meat and this sudden change has an impact on his wellbeing. Through this project, Ayush wants to better improve his current diet by incorporating plant-based meat alternatives for protein as well as encourage other people to do so as it feels great and is better for the environment!
Lizzie has been a very picky eater ever since she was in kindergarten. She would get in trouble from the lunch lady for never finishing her hot lunch she got from the cafeteria, so her mom had to start packing her lunch until Lizzie was able to do it herself. Lizzie has followed a Mediterranean Diet her whole life, and has continued to do so in college, although it is much harder to do on campus than at home. Lizzie loves to prioritize her meals with lots of veggies, healthy fats, and grains. Eating plant-based allows her to fuel her workouts and study sessions.