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A recent study from Dalhousie University found that meat alternatives remain an average of 38 per cent more expensive than the animal products they seek to reproduce, even amid escalating meat prices.Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

Swapping your beef burger for the plant-based variety might feel like a good move for the environment. But saving the planet isn’t going to save you any cash.

A recent study from Dalhousie University found that meat alternatives remain an average of 38 per cent more expensive than the animal products they seek to reproduce, even amid escalating meat prices. And while diets based on unprocessed plant protein can be significantly cheaper, inflation has hardly spared vegetarians and vegans.

Plant-based “chicken” nuggets, for example, are more than twice as expensive as the bird-derived kind, according to research from the university’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab and BetterCart Analytics, which compared 100 grams worth of plant- and animal-based products using data points from across the country.

Vegetarian imitations of meat-based meals and entrées also cost approximately twice as much as the regular variety, while faux burger patties were on average more than 70 per cent pricier, the study shows. The sole exception among the products examined was turkey, for which analogs were 12 per cent cheaper.

Across Canada, meat sales at grocery stores dropped by 9 per cent by volume during the three months ending on April 23, a trend that likely reflects both the fact that consumers are eating more of their meat at restaurants and a pullback in meat consumption driven by rising prices, said Carman Allison, NielsenIQ vice-president of thought leadership for North America.

It’s easy to understand why shoppers aren’t lingering at the meat counter these days. Meat prices were up 10.5 per cent in March compared with the same month last year, with prices for fresh or frozen beef up a staggering 14.1 per cent, nearly double the overall 7.7 per cent pace of annual food inflation.

But swapping animal protein for plant-based look-alikes will likely leave an even bigger hole in your pocket, according to the Dalhousie study. Part of the reason for the higher costs is that producing alt-meat requires considerable research and processing, said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Still, while higher prices for most plant-based meat replicas aren’t surprising, the magnitude of the price differential in Canada is, especially considering the recent price increases for meat itself, he added.

“At 38 per cent more, who’s gonna buy these things over the long term?,” Mr. Charlebois asked, referring to the prices of meat alternatives in Canada. “Is this category still viable?”

To be sure, even avoiding both real and imitation meat won’t protect you from the ravages of inflation. The price of lentils, beans and peas, for example, was up roughly 7 per cent in March compared with the same month last year, according to data from Statistics Canada. Tofu now costs nearly 9 per cent more than a year ago. And if you cook with coconut oil you’re looking at a 23-per-cent higher price tag compared with 12 months ago.

Price increases for legumes and tofu, which is made from soybeans, are roughly in line with overall food inflation and likely reflect higher costs along the supply chain, said James Vercammen, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is disrupting exports of sunflower oil and creating new price pressures for global exports of other vegetable oils, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Ukraine and Russia are, respectively, the world’s first- and second-largest exporters of sunflower oil, together accounting for roughly 80 per cent of global exports, according to research firm Mintec.

The war has also sent world wheat prices up nearly 20 per cent in March alone, according to FAO, as the two countries account for more than a quarter of global exports of the grain. That, in turn, could also eventually have repercussions on the production and price of legumes, Prof. Vercammen warned.

That’s because growers could decide to scale back the production of pulses in favour of more profitable crops such as wheat and other grains that have been soaring in price. However, he added that the shift would likely have no effect on consumer prices this year.

Still, for now, the best Canadians can do to shrink their grocery bill is reduce their meat consumption and rely on unprocessed plant-based sources of protein instead, Prof. Vercammen said.

“Many people have a lot of discretion as to what they could cut out to save some money,” he said. “Eat less meat per week and substitute some good old beans in there.”

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