Here’s What’s Driving the Alt-Meat Discussion
We’ve seen a journalistic craze over the Impossible and Beyond burgers in the past month, with most major publications offering their two cents. Before we discuss what these articles add to the plant-based meat conversation, let’s break down what they all agree upon:
To start, it’s clear that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are distinct from plant-based meat of the past. Why? Because they target an untapped audience: meat-eaters. Beyond and Impossible burgers taste, smell, and fill you up like beef. This is a dream come true for burger-lovers who want to avoid the health consequences of red meat, like heart disease and antibiotic resistance. Also, consumers can take a juicy, umami-filled bite with a clean conscience that they’re not eating a dead cow. Finally, it’s generally accepted that Beyond and Impossible are making strides in confronting the cattle industry’s hefty carbon footprint.
Here’s a taste of the new perspectives in the ongoing discussion of plant-based meat:
Before you could order an Impossible Whopper at a drive-through window, plant-based burgers were only offered at swanky restaurants. They received mostly positive feedback as a fledging reimagination of the veggie burger. But now that Beyond and Impossible have gone mainstream, it has sparked serious debate over whether or not plant-based meat should be accepted with open arms by the masses.
This article defends frequent critiques against plant-based meat. To the complaint about how processed alt-meat is, it suggests that we examine what we mean by “processing” — that we should recognize that processing doesn’t equate to bad food (pasteurization and fortification are two examples of beneficial food processing). In terms of the hefty ingredient list, one can point to the equally lengthy ingredient list for beef. And, finally, the complaints about GMOs in the Impossible burger can be pushed back against with the fact that GMOs are not the devil incarnate. The FDA actually gave it’s nod of approval to Impossible’s genetically modified ingredient, heme.
This article argues that the plant-based meat backlash has everything to do with its expansion into fast-food chains and major grocery stores: “The plant-based meat backlash reflects how much classism and elitism creep into our national conversations about our food system — and how they might stand in the way of fixing it.” We need options for the middle class that are environmentally viable and they will actually buy because they taste deliciously familiar.
What’s Really Inside a Meatless Burger? Elemental
Dietitians haven’t given alt-meat their stamp of approval. You may say: but they made of plants, and plants are healthy, right? Not exactly. These new plant-based burgers are highly processed plants. So while companies may boast of using beans and legumes, the processing these plants undergo to taste like meat makes the them loose some of their healthiest qualities, like phytonutrients like flavonoids that prevent disease and boost the immune system.
Nutritionally, plant-based burgers aren’t necessarily healthier than beef. If you compare an Impossible patty to a lean beef burger, both have 240 calories and about 20 grams of protein per serving. Not to mention, the Impossible patty contains more saturated fat than beef. But on the bright side, alt-meat includes nutrients that are difficult to get in a plant-based diet, like vitamin B12 and zinc.
Plant-based meat does not contain the most important nutrient plants offer: fiber. Beyond and Impossible barely have 3 grams of fiber, in comparison to the Sunshine black bean burger which has 8 grams. Finally, if you’re watching your blood pressure, know that there’s more sodium in a Beyond burger than a hamburger: Beyond has 390 milligrams in comparison to only 80 milligrams for the lean beef burger. But remember, most sodium comes from condiments. So if you’re drenching your hamburger with thousand island dressing, there’s not a significant difference in sodium levels between plant-based and beef.
The Burger Brawl Vox
In America, meat is a political and cultural force. While the Green New Deal doesn’t actually discuss meat-eating, fearmongers on the right claim this proposal would teeter toward Stalinism in that, as Trump so cogently tweeted, it would “permanently eliminate” cows.
However, Beyond and Impossible burgers transcend the cultural warfare between, let's say, a McDonald’s burger and a vegan black bean patty. Why? Because the marketing of these new meatless meats capitalizes on undisputable American values: free choice and technological innovation. Beyond and Impossible aren’t fronting as a moralistic company that shames meat-eating; in fact, the reason they’re growing so rapidly is that they cater to meat-eaters. Even Glenn Beck was shocked by how beefy the Impossible Burger tasted and admitted he “could go vegan.” Beyond and Impossible are tapping into American’s growing environmental consciousness without making them feel like companies are taking away their freedom…or their hamburgers.
Can a Burger Help Solve Climate Change? The New Yorker
Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown is determined to wipe out all animal agriculture and deep-sea fishing by 2035. The Impossible burger’s beefy flavor relies on heme, an iron-rich molecule in hemoglobin manufactured from yeast with a bit of soy DNA. This article brings up that beef is an inefficient food to produce, plain and simple. Cows only produce 1 percent in calories for human consumption of the total calories they consume. Looking forward, Pat Brown believes that switching out beef for an Impossible burger is the best solution to feed the future.
But Impossible Foods has received backlash from PETA and several environmental groups for using animal testing and GMOs. In contrast, Beyond Meat claims to be healthier than Impossible because the product uses non-GMO proteins derived from peas, mung beans, and brown rice. But Impossible isn’t ashamed of the technology it uses; this fall, you will see the word “bioengineered” on all packages when it goes on sale in supermarkets.
Is the New Meat Any Better Than the Old Meat? The New York Times
Missouri, and some other states, didn’t like plant-based companies appropriating the word “burger” and potentially tricking consumers into eating less meat. The state passed a law this year prohibiting companies from representing a product as meat if it isn’t actually produced from an animal. But if that Missouri law discourages people from buying plant-based burgers, it could be encouraging a warming planet. Some experts believe that the single biggest way to have a positive effect on the environment is to eat less meat and dairy.
The rapid growth of plant-based meat from niche vegetarianism to popular culture is comparable to the rise of plant-based milk. Nut milks used to be 1 percent of the dairy market, but now they make up 13 percent in the United States. Plant-based meat makes up about 1 percent of the meat market now, so companies are hoping for a similar trajectory. But real global change comes from entering the Asian market, where there were record-high exports of beef from the U.S. last year.
Dr. David Katz reminds us that it’s not beef or its meatless rivals but beans and legumes that are healthiest protein sources in the world. While plant-based meat is better for planetary health when placed side-by-side with beef, if we consider it as an isolated product, there are still environmental problems worth investigating. For example, the Impossible Burger uses industrially produced GMO soy, which can have devastating effects on wildlife as a monoculture crop in the Amazon rainforest or the American Midwest.
We can only guess that there’s a benefit if you’re replacing highly processed meat with a highly processed Impossible Burger. However, the jury’s still out what the effect is if you’re replacing unprocessed, lean, pasture-raised meat with a highly processed vegan burger. But since we still aren’t certain about the health effects of plant-based meat, Katz invokes the precautionary principle as a rule of thumb. Ultimately, we should reframe how we think about the health consequences of red meat with the “instead of what” principle: Every time you eat an Impossible burger, you lose an opportunity to eat unprocessed, whole-food beans, grains, and vegetables, which are unequivocally kickass for your health.
Our team at Heated joined forces with True Health Initiative to host a plant-based meat webinar with four experts to unpack fact from fiction. We learned that for the environment and human health, the best thing to put in a hamburger bun would first and foremost be a vegetable, like a portobello mushroom; then, it would be a minimally processed, vegetarian burger; after that comes a Beyond or Impossible burger; and finally, an old-fashioned beef patty. The takeaway: If you’re a carnivore, switching from a beef burger to a plant-based burger is good for your health, the health of the planet, and the welfare of animals. But if you are comfortable with plants tasting like plants, stick to unprocessed vegetables and grains.
In the U.K., plant-based meat is selling out. A British bakery chain boosted profits by 58 percent after introducing vegan sausage rolls. This article lays out three primary drivers behind the climbing popularity of meatless meat: vegans are looking for protein, environmentalists want to decrease their carbon footprint, and health-conscious carnivores hope to improve their health by switching out meat for a Beyond burger once in a while.
But even Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who was the first to offer Beyond in the health food store, thinks the health effects of plant-based meat are TBD. While he believes that meatless meat is unequivocally better for the environment, he would “not endorse” their health benefits.
To demonstrate how plant-based burgers are catering to meat-eaters, look to an upscale restaurant in San Francisco, where an Impossible Burger is paired with bacon bits. This article takes a strong stand that plant-based is not a health food because it’s hyper-processed. I mean, it makes sense because the Impossible burger was designed to imitate meat as closely as possible, including macronutrient profile and calories. However, Beyond Burgers could be a healthier choice than Impossible because they don’t use GMOs and are soy- and gluten-free.
In terms of environmental impact, it’s important to talk about scale. Right now, plant-based meats make up less than 1 percent of the meat industry. But with major companies like Tyson and Purdue experimenting with plant-based products, there’s potential to make a dent in greenhouse gas reduction from the livestock industry. Not to mention, competition keeps prices down and makes these products more accessible to the masses, especially to two of the biggest markets for meat in the world: India and China.
Juliette Luini is a writer, researcher, and independent podcast producer. She attends Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.