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Protein-Rich and Plant-Based Alternative: Improve your Health and Reduce your Carbon Footprint

Mitzi Collinsworth February 9, 2021

The Meat Tradition

The act of eating beef, including all meat sources, has become behavioral in nature. People consume meat for a host of psychological reasons. Meat is the centerpiece for social gatherings throughout the year. My own family looks forward to the traditional turkey at Thanksgiving. Beef is regarded as an indulgence at home and in fine dining. Individuals in the United States believe that meat is their main food source to consume the daily recommended amount of protein.

Meat is a good source of energy and nutrients like protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, but it is possible to find a sufficient protein source with these nutrients in a wide variety of other foods that are available for consumption (Godfray et. al.). In the article, I will introduce a new alternative protein source the U.S. should implement to make a positive impact on our health and environment.

Negative Health Implications

Meat consumption takes a toll on our health and the environment. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the amount of food consumption compared to previous years to update the Dietary Guideline’s recommendations. Based on the bar graph below, the U.S. consumes more meat and grains than recommended in 2016.

Individuals who consume higher intakes of red meat are more likely to be more affected by common carcinogenic, inflammatory, and cardiovascular diseases. Studies generally show that "total mortality rates are modestly higher in participants who have high intakes of red and processed meat," with evidence showing high intakes of processed meat leading to increased risk of colorectal cancer (Godfray et al.). In recent years, there is more discussion regarding Neu5Gc, a non-human sialic acid sugar molecule, as a possible connection to high meat consumption and an increase in carcinogens.

“Neu5Gc, is common in red meat that increases the risk of tumor formation in humans, is also prevalent in pig organs, with concentrations increasing as the organs are cooked, a study by researchers from the UC Davis School of Medicine and Xiamen University School of Medicine has found” (UC Davis, 2016). There is some argument by some universities like University of California, San Diego (UCSD) claiming the genetic makeup of humans compared to lab mice and chimpanzees vary enough to put these claims to the test.

However, there is new research testing this theory further. “While most mammals commonly express the two forms of sialic acids, N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac) and N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), humans cannot synthesize Neu5Gc due to a loss-of-function mutation in the CMAH gene, which encodes the enzyme responsible for its synthesis. Consequently, Neu5Gc is immunogenic in humans, leading to generation of antibodies against various presentations of Neu5Gc-glycans” (Soulillou, J. P., & Padler-Karavani, V., 2020). This means that humans a long time ago were able to break down this sugar molecule chemically to use it for energy. However, as humans evolved, they didn’t keep this gene. Modern day humans can’t break this chemical down like before which causes an immune response with side effects like inflammation. Too much of this chronic inflammation will lead to disease.

Environmental Impact

It is true meat is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids needed by the human body. If individuals switched to a plant-based diet, proper protein and iron levels to maintain a healthy diet would be affected. Plant-based proteins come from sources such as tofu, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, and grains. All are good sources of protein, but most are incomplete proteins on their own. The plant-based proteins must be combined to form a complete protein to be used by the human body. However, to save the impact on the environment and cost, lower impact meats can also be incorporated into the plant-based diet.

Two years ago, while researching for an environmental impact statement, I came across findings regarding elements that contribute to greenhouse gases. I always thought plastic, coal, and automobile exhaust were the largest contributors. However, “livestock production is found to be a major source of greenhouse gas along with other pollutants and can exacerbate soil erosion” (Godfray et. al.).

We already see massive dead zones in our soil from tilling practices, but now we are seeing an increase in burning vast amounts of forest land to make room for meat production. The land is then used to house the livestock to produce dairy and meat for their surrounding areas. However, the practices used are not sustainable and contribute to greenhouse gases. “Manure effluent and extensive over-use of fertilizers for feedstock production [...] pollute many waterways and are significant contributors to the more than 400 dead zones that exist at river mouths worldwide” (Machovina, Feeley, Ripple).

These unsustainable meat production practices are also destroying our tropical forests that help absorb the carbon emissions preventing global warming. During farm growing seasons, NASA has imagery that visually describes how carbon is absorbed more during growing seasons compared to off season dry uncovered land. Not only are we increasing greenhouse emissions by destroying forests, but we are driving wildlife to extinction. "Livestock production is the predominant driver of natural habitat loss worldwide,” and agricultural expansion is the leading cause of tropical deforestation (Machovina, Feeley, Ripple).

Not all meat has an equal impact on the environment. Some fair worse than others depending on resources needed for production. Out of all meat sources, “the high rate of consumption of beef has been shown to be the largest driver of food-borne greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land occupation in the U.S. diet,” according to the authors of the research article Potential to curb the environmental burdens of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute (2017).