Rethinking Meat

A food innovation—and a pause about what gave birth to it in the first place

Raw beef steak
Claudia Totir/Getty Images

The best one-size-fits-all advice I can think to give about meat in your diet is: less is better. If you eat no meat now, you can’t eat less, so this advice can’t do you any harm. If you eat any meat at all, you can safely and perhaps beneficially eat none, so this advice could help you. If you eat a lot of meat, eating less would almost certainly improve the quality of your diet and health.

There are at least four reasons why that last statement is true:

  • None of the diets that produce the greatest combination of longevity and vitality in human populations in the real world are meat-centric, and there is the simple “we can’t beat these people, so it sure would be nice to join them” argument.
  • Much the same is true of dietary patterns that have performed well in intervention trials addressing everything from diabetes to cardiovascular disease to dementia.
  • There is the “this or that?” aspect of dietary choice. Consuming a lot of meat means meat makes up much of the total diet, which in turn means that plants do not. Eating less meat, and doing it rationally, means eating plant-based protein sources such as beans and lentils instead; the one-for-one health advantages of beans over beef are well documented.
  • There is the perhaps surprising fact that “meat” is a very generic term. 

Today’s Meat Is Not Yesterday’s

Leaving aside increasingly frequent references to “plant-based meat,” traditional use of the term encompasses everything from veal to venison, and salmon to salami.

While the health effects of eating game (wild animals that eat their native diets and get their native exercise) are debatable, the health effects of the kinds of meats that prevail in modern diets, processed meats in particular, are not. They are clearly adverse. Stone Age adaptations are often invoked to justify meat eating, but the simple fact is that the meat most people are eating these days is nothing at all like any meat to which our species may be adapted.​

There is an important proviso to append, however. A diet heavy in meat is only improved if meat is displaced by wholesome, nutritious foods. Less pepperoni and more Pop-Tarts, or less salami and more SnackWell’s is not trading up. There is more than one way to eat badly.

A Global Impact

Perhaps even more important than the implications of advice about meat for any one of us is the impact of applying such advice at scale. Meat consumption as widely practiced is certainly costly to human health, contributing to cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. But it is even more decisively costly to species other than our own and the planet at large. The production of beef, in particular, comes at very high environmental costs measured, minimally, in greenhouse gas emissions and water utilization. The production of any animal for human consumption at industrial scale is associated with infamous brutality and callous disregard for suffering. I know few people who are truly indifferent to such cruelty on the menu, but many manage not to consider or notice it.

So, less meat has been the right answer for the sake of our own healthy bodies, for the body politic, for the planet, for the climate, for biodiversity, and for the sake and sanctity of human decency and kindness.

What Is “Clean Meat?”

There is, however, a New Age, alternative answer, and one attracting the interest of global innovators—“clean meat.” This is meat that is produced from cells grown in labs, or from plant sources. While open to interpretation, the term in its present incarnation refers to meat that avoids all of the liabilities—to health, the environment, and our ethics—of raising animals en masse for slaughter.

The motivations for this approach are perfectly clear. People in general are used to eating meat, and most like it. A population of 8 billion hungry Homo sapiens cannot be substantially carnivorous without destroying the planet.

Alternative means of producing meat potentially let us have our beef and eat it too, while cleaning up the messes attached to eating meat of the historical variety.

I am not opposed to this concept by any means, and certainly think it can accelerate much-needed, global progress toward less industrial-scale animal husbandry (a term that is either euphemistic about factory farming, or says something rather awful about husbands, I’ve never been quite sure which). But while it is doubtless a good business opportunity, I have some ambivalence about it for several reasons.

For one thing, diet, its quality, and its effects on health all relate both to what isn’t eaten, along with what is. Perhaps the reason the most healthful diets are low in meat is because eating less meat is good for health. Maybe, though, it’s because what replaces meat in such diets—beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, root vegetables, etc.—is so good for health. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Replacing meat with new and perhaps “cleaner” meat addresses one of these priorities, but not necessarily the other. If it becomes a reason to miss out on the benefits of lentils and chickpeas, it is a questionable proposition for health.

For another, factory processes tend to be demanding in terms of energy and water utilization. So, for instance, it takes up to 600 liters of water to produce a single liter of Coca-Cola in its plastic bottle, due to the industrial processes involved in generating both. Perhaps these challenges can be overcome in the production of New Age meat, but that needs to be proved.

For yet another, the use of high-tech methods to produce meat conspires against the democratization of food production—the idea that all or most of us can be involved in both food demand and supply, growing some of our own food or at least obtaining it from local sources. The concentration of food production in the hands of a few controlling, high-tech methods is a concentration of power.

And, lastly, there are the time-honored concerns about monoculture. Growing vast swathes of one or a few crops to make a processed food, even a nutritious processed food, has many disadvantages to growing a variety of nutritious foods and just eating them.

Basic May Be Better Than “Better”

Ultimately, the question of how (or whether) to eat meat cleanly becomes a matter of taste, both literal and figurative. Literally, taste buds are adaptable little fellas that go through rehab quite readily, learning to love the new and more wholesome foods we introduce that love us back. This works well when water replaces soda, or beans replace beef. Viewed through this lens, the replacement of old-style meat with New Age “alt meat” is analogous to the substitution of artificial sweeteners for sugar—a case of moving on while holding back.

Options, I suppose, are good, and what works best for you and your taste buds is, of course, up to you. For my taste, however, I prefer a cleaner sweep. Skip the meat made in a lab, and pass the lentils.

Continue Reading