By Cory Phare
Summer 2019 may well be remembered as the season when “fake meat” changed American agriculture, diet, economy and environment.
Alternative meat producer Beyond Meat’s initial public offering in May saw its stock price surge 163% in one day, rising from $25 a share to around $65. At press time Wednesday, that price was up to $160 as the company announced plans to raise $40 million to expand its manufacturing capabilities. Meanwhile, plant-based Impossible Foods solidified the fake-meat takeover at the end of July, announcing that Burger King will start selling its Impossible Whopper across the United States on Aug. 8 and that it plans to sell its Impossible Burgers in grocery stores starting in September.
Demand and interest for meat alternatives have surged this summer as Americans try to reduce their meat intake for health and environmental reasons. In fact, sales of plant-based foods have grown by 11% in the past year, bringing the total plant-based market value to $4.5 billion, according to a July report from the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group, and the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that supports plant-based businesses.
“There can be benefits from both health and environmental standpoints, and consumers are putting the pressure on food companies to develop more plant-based options through their buying power,” said Rachel Sinley, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “These companies have spent years and millions of dollars on researching these products – and consumers can tell.”
Rise of the flexitarian
If you’ve tried an Impossible Burger or a Beyond Meat product, you may be a flexitarian. The term, referring to a person whose “normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish,” has been in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary since 2012, but it has become one of the biggest health buzzwords of summer 2019.
And flexitarian-curious burger lovers, take note: This isn’t your parents’ plant patty.
“In general, this next generation of meat substitutes is much more sophisticated and uses technologies allowing for a flavor and nutritional profile that mimics meat more closely,” Sinley said.
One distinguishing characteristic of the Impossible Burger is that it appears to “bleed.”
This results from the prevalence of soy leghemoglobin, a protein found in soy that contains the deep-red, iron-rich pigment heme that’s also in blood-based hemoglobin. The company has developed its proprietary approach to fermentation of the compound by engineering genetically modified yeast cells; combined with the appearance, it contributes to the “meaty” flavor of beef, Sinley said.
It’s also what has held up approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for sale of Impossible Foods’ products in grocery stores. The new technology wasn’t regulated by the FDA, so the governmental agency had to amend its rules to call the use of soy leghemoglobin safe as a color additive in imitation beef, Bloomberg reported.
“We eat with all of our senses; this ingredient – along with others – allows us to have a flavor, aroma and appearance similar to meat,” Sinley said.
Beefing with water usage
Concerned about climate change? Eliminating meat from your diet is the most effective thing an individual can do to fight climate change, according to a study in the journal Science.
The environmental impact of plant-based protein is potentially huge, said registered dietitian/nutritionist Jennifer Watson.
“Globally, we see meat as a luxury item,” the MSU Denver hospitality faculty member said. “At the same time, though, everything we say as nutritionists is to eat less of it.”
This is in part because eating lower on the food chain uses few resources – one of the topics examined in the University’s farm-to-table sustainability class, which Watson recently taught.
The course examined the concept of food miles and the systems to combat waste, directly and indirectly, as it takes nearly 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. And at more than 55 pounds of meat consumed per person in the U.S. in 2017, that works out to roughly 400 trillion gallons annually – or four times the water in Lake Erie.
“By cutting out beef even once a week, it drastically affects your carbon footprint,” Watson said. “Our agricultural capacity is directly tied to our ability to keep using our natural resources.
“We want to look at different ways to consume less meat as this means we’ll use less water; right now, it’s a very wasteful process.”
A healthy alternative?
Plant-based burgers may be good for the environment – but are they good for us?
In comparison with a beef patty, the Impossible Burger is a good source of fiber, calcium and potassium, Sinley said; total calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates between the two burgers are fairly similar.
“While there is no dietary cholesterol in the plant-based burger, it’s important to note there’s more saturated fat, which is due to its high proportion of coconut oil in its formula,” she said. “It also has almost 300 milligrams more of sodium, a mineral of which many Americans consume way too much and is linked to heart disease.”
Another nutrient we tend to overindulge in is protein.
“As a country, we’re obsessed with (it) and often get two or three times what we actually need on a daily basis,” Watson said.
For a 2,000-calorie diet, that need would be 50 grams per day, according to the FDA. With a single Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat patty clocking in at 19 and 20 grams, respectively, that can add up quickly. This is important, as too much protein intake can lead to kidney damage in addition to increased calories, Watson said.
“Somewhere along the way, elements like carbohydrates and fat got a bad rap, but we think of protein as good,” she added. “Really, we want people to eat more fruits and veggies, less meat, and move more – but that’s not really sexy.
“Ultimately, these plant-based burgers are still an indulgence, depending on what you put on it. Like everything else, moderation is key.”
Be mindful of your meat
When it comes to making the switch from animal-based proteins to these kinds of foods, one of the main elements is stopping to question what our health and wellness goals are – and how these changes help get us there, Sinley said.
“Are we trying to trick our body into thinking it’s getting meat?” she said. “Or should we be training ourselves to know it’s OK to not have meat, say, with beans and rice or other natural plant-based options?”
There’s not a clear-cut right or wrong answer to that question that will work for everybody, she said. However, for meat lovers, incorporating plant-based substitutes may be just the small bites that the doctor – or dietitian – ordered.
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“People won’t make changes if they feel deprived of what they enjoy,” Watson said. “It’s not a silver bullet, but any change in small, incremental steps to find nutritional balance is a good thing.”
For Sinley, who professed her love for black-bean burgers, the answer is clear.
“This is just me, but personally I like food to taste like what it is.”
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