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Research shows beef stands up when compared to plant-based proteins

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Our goal at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is to make beef the number one protein. We do that through all of our programs,” Mandy Carr, NCBA senior executive director for science, culinary and outreach team, says. “We mark the acceptance of proteins every quarter, and consumers do believe that beef is the number one protein.” 

The “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” slogan provides a starting point for many consumers, and consumers who are familiar with the beef brand keep it at the top of their protein list. However, those consumers unfamiliar with the slogan are more vulnerable, says Carr.

“Consumers across the globe are looking at alternatives to their protein choices,” Carr continues, noting that before the last several years, protein alternatives included fish, poultry and pork. “Today, we know that alternatives includes plant-based or lab-based alternatives, as well.”

In countries like Germany and the United Kingdom, the number of consumers who are decreasing their meat intake has shifted. 

“While these companies are looking to mimic beef, how can beef hold its position as the top protein?” Carr asks, noting beef easily wins the fight when compared to plant-based proteins.


Sustainability is often used as a target when plant-based protein alternatives are supported. 

Alternative proteins claim to be superior in terms of sustainability.

“Beyond Meat is a plant-based protein competitor. Their burger or crumble is a pea protein,” Carr says. “In their vision, they tend to play on the emotions of consumer.”
Beyond Meat makes claims like, “It’s worth the fight to transition to a different protein because it’s better for the planet.”

However, the beef industry assesses sustainability using a whole lifecycle assessment. 

“U.S. beef is one of the most environmentally efficient and sustainable when it comes to raising any protein,” Carr says. “Producers are committed to excellence, and they continue to be good stewards of their livestock and the natural resources they are entrusted with.” 

She emphasizes, “When we look at sustainability, today in the United States, U.S. farmers and ranchers produce 18 percent of the world’s beef with only eight percent of the world’s cattle. How do we do that? Increases in efficiency and other characteristics allow us to do this.” 

Carr cites welfare, management, nutrition and genetic advances have all enabled increased efficiency. 

Grain competition

Carr says advocates for alternative protein sources say cattle compete with humans for grain.

“The fact of the matter is, whether we are talking about grass-fed or grain-fed beef animals, we are talking about livestock that spend 90 percent of their life consuming forages and plants,” she says. “Only 10 percent of their lives are spent consuming grains.” 

Additionally, a large majority of the U.S. is not suitable for crop production, meaning ruminant animals are necessary to harvest

Only two percent of arable cropland is used for corn, and two percent of corn production goes toward animal

“That equates to 0.03 percent of the landmass in the U.S. used to grow corn fed to animals,” Carr emphasizes.  

“Cattle have this opportunity to not only graze land that is not highly utilizable for growing crops for human consumption, but they also use the leftovers from crops harvested for humans and continue to upgrade that plant residue into high-quality proteins,” she says.

Nutrition implications

Alternative protein producers also often claim superior nutrition in alternative products. 

“Marketing claims for alternative proteins often only include the good qualities about these products,” Carr explains. “In a consumer’s mind, the argument is about positive attributes. They tend to leave out key pieces that may be negative as related to nutrition.” 

Beef, however, supplies vital nutrients to human consumers of all ages. Carr says, noting, “Calorie-to-calorie and serving-size-to serving size, beef has the highest quality protein compared to the alternatives.” 

Beef’s low sodium and lean nature makes it ideal for heart-healthy diets. 

“On average, a three-ounce serving of lean beef provides 10 percent of the daily value of 10 different essential nutrients with less than 10 percent of the calories,” she describes. “Calorie for calorie, we get the most potential per calorie than alternative products.” 

In more depth, research also supports high-quality protein in weight management. 

To get the equivalent amount of protein as three ounces of lean beef, Americans would have to consume three cups of quinoa, which is over 600 calories. 

“The efficient protein in beef offers is often not portrayed when it is compared to plant-based proteins,” Carr comments. 

Clean labels

Carr also says the trend toward a “clean label,” meaning nutrition labels that have fewer ingredients, favors beef.

“Beef has one ingredient on the label – just beef,” she comments. “When we compare that to plant-based alternatives, they have lots of ingredients that are often very hard to pronounce and unfamiliar.” 


In addition to being nutritionally superior, Carr says, “Taste is the biggest demand driver for consumers, and beef does very, very well on taste.” 

The satisfaction of consumer perceptions for steak has been steady over many years. 

“Overall, consumers are very pleased with their last steak-eating experiences,” she says. “Consumers have high expectations, but we’re also fulfilling those.” 

Further, Carr comments, “Our competitors are basically trying to be beef in creating their products.” 

However, meat substitutes don’t hit the mark when compared to beef. She says the taste of plant-based proteins is improving, though. 

“In 2018, one alternative company worked toward a goal to have a side-by-side blind taste test against beef,” she says. “Ten years ago, only 10 percent of consumers said the alternative burger tasted like a beef burger. Last year, that jumped to 50 percent of consumers who preferred the alternative burger to beef.” 

She emphasizes, “These companies are getting closer to their goal.” 

Carr presented during the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association 2019 Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show, held in late January this year.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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