Meat alternatives: life cycle assessment of most known meat substitutes



Food production is among the highest human environmental impacting activities. Agriculture itself accounts for 70–85 % of the water footprint and 30 % of world greenhouse gas emissions (2.5 times more than global transport). Food production’s projected increase in 70 % by 2050 highlights the importance of environmental impacts connected with meat production. The production of various meat substitutes (plant-based, mycoprotein-based, dairy-based, and animal-based substitutes) aims to reduce the environmental impact caused by livestock. This article outlined the comparative analysis of meat substitutes’ environmental performance in order to estimate the most promising options.


The study considered “cradle-to-plate” meal life cycle with the application of ReCiPe and IMPACT 2002+ methods. Inventory was based on literature and field data. Functional unit (FU) was 1 kg of a ready-to-eat meal at a consumer. The study evaluated alternative FU (the equivalent of 3.75 MJ energy content of fried chicken lean meat and 0.3 kg of digested dry matter protein content) as a part of sensitivity analysis.

Results and discussion

Results showed the highest impacts for lab-grown meat and mycoprotein-based analogues (high demand for energy for medium cultivation), medium impacts for chicken (local feed), and dairy-based and gluten-based meat substitutes, and the lowest impact for insect-based and soy meal-based substitutes (by-products allocated). Alternative FU confirmed the worst performance of lab-grown and mycoprotein-based analogues. The best performing products were insect-based and soy meal-based substitutes and chicken. The other substitutes had medium level impacts. The results were very sensitive to the changes of FU. Midpoint impact category results were the same order of magnitude as a previously published work, although wide ranges of possible results and system boundaries made the comparison with literature data not reliable.

Conclusions and recommendations

The results of the comparison were highly dependable on selected FU. Therefore, the proposed comparison with different integrative FU indicated the lowest impact of soy meal-based and insect-based substitutes (with given technology level development). Insect-based meat substitute has a potential to be more sustainable with the use of more advanced cultivation and processing techniques. The same is applicable to lab-grown meat and in a minor degree to gluten, dairy, and mycoprotein-based substitutes.

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Correspondence to Sergiy Smetana.

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Smetana, S., Mathys, A., Knoch, A. et al. Meat alternatives: life cycle assessment of most known meat substitutes. Int J Life Cycle Assess 20, 1254–1267 (2015).

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  • Insect meal
  • LCA
  • Meat substitute
  • Mycoprotein
  • Soy meal