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Published on July 26th, 2010 | by Rachel Shulman

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Processed vegetarian foods: No more eco-friendly than meat

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I’ve known many vegetarians and vegans that subsist on processed foods. Giving up meat doesn’t necessarily make it easier to avoid the pitfalls of the Western diet, after all. Frozen veggie burgers, “chicken-less” nuggets, soy cheese, and seitan sausages often seem more convenient than cooking a meal of plants, grains, and beans.

But given that global meat production accounts for almost a fifth of all greenhouse gases, a store-bought veggie burger is probably more eco-friendly than a beef burger, right?

Not so says a recent story in Mother Jones. In this article, Kiera Butler points out that processed vegetarian food might be just as bad for the environment as meat.

According to Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist who examines the environmental consequences of food production, processed vegetarian foods are not more sustainable than meat.

Butler writes:

… Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of “shooting yourself in the foot.” A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.

Butler’s story is a good reminder that being an eco-eater isn’t as easy as giving up meat. Eliminating processed food from your diet requires planning and logging hours in the kitchen, but if you want to eat sustainably, an unprocessed, plant-based diet is the way to go.

To read the full article in Mother Jones, click here.

Image courtesy of Chris Campbell via a Creative Commons license.

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About the Author

I'm an ecologist turned journalist turned farmer-in-training. I'm currently working on an organic farm and creamery in Illinois. Follow me on twitter (http://twitter.com/rachelshulman), friend me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=3105709), or follow me on StumbleUpon (http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/RachelShulman/).



  • http://www.thecrunchycoach.com crunchycoach

    I totally agree. Processed food is processed food, whether gluten-free, vegan, or trans-fat free. I know a lot of people who think they are eating so healthy because they stock up on chips and bread and other snack foods at the health food store. They don't realize that those foods still can create mineral deficiencies in the body, suppress the immune system and contain additives that aren't on the label.

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  • http://Web Robert

    I’m not so easily convinced by this one study when there is already an overwhelming body of evidence which essentially tells us that eating lower on the food chain has a lower overall environmental impact. Regardless of whether a food is processed or not, there are a number of additional inputs that animal products require and these inputs have to be factored into the overall equation. I’m not sure this study is comprehensive enough to draw any clear conclusions. I’ll have to take a closer look.

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