Veganism and Plant-Based Meat Substitutes

When we speak of veganism, it is important to understand “who it is for?”. In this attempt, I asked the same question across my social media accounts. The most common responses were – people who eat meat, those who do not eat meat and those who want to eat meat. It is interesting how nobody really thinks it is for animals or the planet. 

The majority of the vegan population advocate substituting animal milk with almond milk or soy milk as cruelty-free and environmentally friendly options. But is it truly so? Soybeans are often genetically modified and research says that GM crops use more herbicides and negatively impact the agricultural ecosystem. Almond milk, too, has a hefty environmental impact. More than 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California, which has experienced its worst drought on record. It takes 5 litres of water to grow one almond, and thanks to the increase in demand and the big profits they bring in, almond orchards continue to be planted. 

The majority of the plant-based substitutes that are sold in the market are packaged. Many of these products have added preservatives, artificial sugars, inflammatory oils and other ingredients that we don’t want to be consuming. While some meat substitutes are made with pea protein, beans etc, there is a huge market of newer faux meat products that contain hard to pronounce artificial foods as main ingredients like methylcellulose (an artificial thickener), soy leghemoglobin (a genetically engineered protein) etc – the use of each of these and their impact on our health is extremely hazardous.

As a nutritionist, I never advocate the use of ultra-processed and packaged foods that are made in a factory. Any food that is made in a laboratory with ingredient names we can not even pronounce can not be good for us – be it nutritionally or environmentally.

Indian cuisine, culture and climate

According to the census data, about 30% of our population is vegetarian. The rest 70% are non-vegetarian but consume relatively low quantities of meat and only about 6% of that population eats meat on a daily basis. On average, it comes to as low as 3.4 kg of meat per person per year. While in the US it is close to 124 kg of meat per person, per year. 

A major aspect when we speak of plant-based food substitutes is the population’s nutritional needs. Majorly, protein because we see meat and dairy as the main source of protein. To address this, we need to understand our culture better. There lies a treasure of underutilized foods waiting to be re-discovered. 

Dal rice, roti or bhakri with curry are all excellent examples of food combinations that we have been eating culturally and these are great sources of protein. We need not rely on meat for protein. Makki ki roti and sarson ka saag from Punjab, dal baati churma in Rajasthan or pithla bhakri in Maharashtra, all of these qualify as vegan – plant based foods, except they are not sold with this label and hence, we create an artificial need for packaged plant based foods that the industry wants us to believe are better for us.

Not only about plants but also animals. In India, we have wetlands, pasture lands and solid ecosystems with people who exist within these. For example, someone staying in Ladakh can’t grow plants on ice. What they eat is meat from yak and sheep. These are available, affordable, nutritionally adequate warm foods that help them survive the climate. A transformation to packaged or industry produced plant-based meat substitutes in such areas will in itself be nothing short of a disaster. We simply need to get back to our basics and eat local and seasonal foods, not only related to meat consumption but the overall eating culture

The future of food

From a food sovereignty perspective, it is great that we are adding a category of foods to the basket. There is no denying that most mock meats are linked to lesser greenhouse gas emissions than animal products and have a lesser impact on climate change. However, plant-based substitutes are not necessarily eco-friendly. While these processed products have about half the carbon footprint than chicken does – they can also have 5 to 10 times higher carbon footprint than a simple meal of vegetable wrap or beans and rice bowl. 

For me, as a nutritionist, the future of food should ideally be able to dismantle capitalism and give the farmers the right to choose the crop they want to grow. If there is a transition in the food system, it has to be localised, seasonalised and sustainable with proper land and water use keeping in mind aspects of affordability and accessibility.

Note: This  article was written as part of my talk on “healthy eating and plant-based food substitutes, the current trends in the food industry”, conducted at Illumina, the annual event of MDI business school, Gurgaon.

References:

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-meat-substitutes-healthy/
https://theprint.in/opinion/theres-more-to-being-vegan-than-plant-based-meat-its-not-as-healthy-as-you-think/754697/
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2015/oct/21/almond-milk-quite-good-for-you-very-bad-for-the-planet

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