Meat Me at the Table
Sustainability, Ethics, and Nutrition Facts About Pork
Author: Riley, Larson, MS, RDN, LD
Plant-based diets are increasingly visible in the public eye, especially in more developed countries like the USA where the choice of protein per meal is a luxury we can afford. Recently, choosing a protein has become a challenging task for those who are concerned not only for taste and good nutrition, but also for our planet– essentially, it has become a battle between meat and vegetable proteins, with the idea that there can only be one winner.
Consumers’ awareness of the importance of plants for health has driven the popularity of products like the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger, which many people choose to eat or purchase under the impression that it is the more nutritious, plant-based option compared to animal protein. But is this really the case?
Overall, people are suffering from a lack of trustworthy information about the proteins they consume, be they animal or plant in origin. As a fellow consumer, I say the concerns for health and sustainability in the protein industry are legitimate. As a dietitian, I am well positioned to provide fact-based, thorough, and inclusive interpretations of available research on the subject to address these very concerns! Ultimately, this article can help those who care about the health of themselves as well as the planet to make healthy, sustainable protein choices based on both individual needs and global impact.
One of my core nutrition philosophies is that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods. Take one of my favorite foods as an example: the humble brownie. While the high sugar and fat content makes some people gasp, they cannot deny that our bodies need a certain amount of carbohydrates and fats to function well, and brownies contain some of these types of macronutrients. Now, brownies can also contain a high quantity of sugar and some of the “bad” saturated fat. Does that totally negate the vitamins they contain? Not at all! It does mean, however, that in order to achieve nutritional balance, we can’t eat brownies at every meal (one of the saddest lessons I learned as a young nutrition student).
Interestingly, this concept of “no good or bad foods” also applies to the sustainability of foods and the concept of a carbon footprint. The products each country produces are not inherently “good” or “bad”- rather, the LOCATION of production in one country or the other gives their individual products drastically different sustainability footprints. It follows that knowing where your food comes from plays a role in supporting sustainable practices. No food is inherently sustainable or unsustainable—in most cases, location of both production and consumption plays a huge role in a food product’s environmental footprint.
The point is this: every food requires resources to grow, so no food has a net zero or net negative impact on sustainability. While it is important to be conscious of not choosing all the highest impact foods to consume on a daily basis, it also isn’t practical to play the “which foods are the lowest impact and I’ll only eat those forever” game. Your grandma isn’t going to exclusively consume soy (the lowest impact food by most measures) overnight, neither is your husband, nor are your kids, nor, probably, are you. While sustainability is important to consider when making food choices, it does not exist in a vacuum. There are cultural and nutritional considerations that must be made when developing sustainability recommendations.
Nutrition Considerations of Meat and Plant Proteins
We’ve all heard about America’s obesity problem, and we’ve all heard that one of the big contributors to this is the so-called “Western-style diet,” an eating pattern characterized by high protein, low produce, and high processed food intake. We can all agree that Western-style diets are not a viable solution to health or sustainability challenges facing today’s populations. We need Americans to eat LESS processed food, MORE whole foods, and MORE plants.
In fact, shifts toward greater consumption of plants is essential both for remaining within planetary boundaries, and also to ensure adequate consumption of nutrients overall. However, just because we want to increase American consumption of plants does not mean there is no place for animals in agriculture or on our plates — we just need more BALANCE.
Facilitating access to nutritional adequacy combined with a plant-forward mindset towards nutrition are likely to result in reduced environmental impact, even when people are still consuming meat! Increasing consumption of plants, decreasing processed food consumption, adjusting portion sizes for nutrient adequacy, and reducing high impact animal product consumption and instead choosing low-impact alternatives such as pork products are ways that Americans can begin to make a measurable impact on the health of our planet and the health of themselves as individuals.
Nutrition Comparison of Meat and Popular Plant-Based Protein Alternatives
The rising popularity of plant-based replacement protein products like the Beyond Burger (BB) and the Impossible Burger (IB) raises a valuable question for health professionals: does “plant-based” always mean “healthier”? And how do they compare nutritionally to low-impact pork?
Efforts to decrease sodium and increase potassium are critical for prevention and management of cardiovascular and kidney diseases as well as osteoporosis and cancer. Pork contains only 75mg of sodium and a whopping 6 times more potassium, while the reverse is true for its processed counterparts. Pork also contains many beneficial nutrients that aren’t always on the label: 3oz of cooked pork contains more than a third of the daily requirement for thiamin, niacin, selenium and vitamin B6, and is a good source of vitamin B12, potassium, iron, magnesium and zinc. IB is the only PBP created from a nutritional standpoint that has a comparable nutrient profile due to additions to the ingredients list—let’s take a look at that!
|*Ground Pork Ingredients
|*Beyond Meat Ingredients
|*Impossible Burger Ingredients
|Ground pork, natural flavors.
|Water, Pea Protein Isolate*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color), Carrot.
|Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
We can see immediately the ingredients for your basic ground pork are simple. It’s a good reminder that ground pork is considered an unprocessed food, per the FAO’s NOVA Food Classification System, while the other products score as “Ultra-processed products- 4”. This is a good point to bring up to folks who state in the same breath they want to avoid processed foods and then say they want to eat more of these types of products. Considering the previous discussion of nutrient profiles, it is worthwhile to consider if there are other, less processed sources of those nutrients that may provide additional nutritional benefits over these processed foods.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that for a supposed vegetable protein product, neither of these analog burgers actually contain appreciable amounts of vegetables. This means that in no way does eating a plant-based burger actually increase your consumption of servings of vegetables; rather, you are eating select nutrients processed out of vegetables and legumes (the literal definition of a processed food). Finally, when comparing all these qualities and then looking at cost per pound of pork ($3/lb) vs the alternatives (both are $12/lb), it’s apparent that pork offers greater opportunity for flavor customization, less processing, and a more varied and appropriate nutrient profile at a much more affordable price.
Overall, it is clear the supposed health and nutrition superiority of these analog products to whole pork does not hold up based on a nutritional analysis. In fact, these products have some distinct disadvantages in terms of increased processing, lower potassium to sodium ratio, and cost.
Remember, this assessment was made comparing these products to 80/20 ground pork– by choosing a leaner pork, which dietitians like myself would recommend doing anyway, it is actually possible to get more protein, less fat, less sodium, fewer calories, more potassium, and greater micronutrient density than the processed burger counterparts by comparison. Choosing a leaner ground pork, or perhaps making whole cut burgers using various chop or roast cuts gives you all the nutritional benefits at a heart- and wallet-friendly price. I’d venture to say it’s unlikely that we’ll see an American Heart Association seal of approval on these plant-based burgers, whereas pork tenderloin and sirloin roast are already admitted to the exclusive heart-healthy, AHA-approved food club.
In summary, sustainability and nutrition can work together to allow individuals to choose diets that are best for them AND the planet. “Plant-based” doesn’t always mean “healthy” if the product is more processed, so opt for more non-processed plants along with adequate portions of low-impact animal and plant protein to keep you going through the days ahead. Ultimately, don’t forget meat has a valuable seat at the table when discussing ecological and nutritional consequences of our daily food choices.