Are Plant-Based Meat Alternatives the Key to Planetary and Personal Health?

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This isn’t your mother’s burger, baby. It’s the dawning of the age of alternative meats and these so-called “burgers” at fast-food chains are no longer just made from cows. Now it´s mock, plant-based meat that’s meant to mimic the taste and protein-rich experience that carnivores crave. This scientific food mimicry of beef is being touted as the best way to help reduce our reliance on industrial meat production worldwide. According to the market research firm Mintel, 46% of Americans believe that plant-based meat is better for you than real meat. And where there is a need, there are entrepreneurs who are ready to build businesses, and what the world wanted were diets higher in plant-based foods for the safety of our health and the planet´s. And that’s what we got, along with plenty of doubts on what we are actually eating. 

Last year Burger King teamed up with Impossible Foods to launch the Impossible Whopper, a completely meat-free patty that´s marketed as better for your health and the environment. But is this totally true? There are arguments from both sides. For one, the Impossible Whopper, not only has comparable caloric and fat levels as its meat-based counterpart, but it has more salt per serving, according to the NBC News. Doctors warn that an excessive amount of salt in one’s diet can lead to heart disease. As can red meat and other deli meats. This information leaves most of us scratching our heads about which of the two evils to choose for dinner.

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What everyone is asking themselves is whether these plant-based alternatives should be considered part of a healthy and sustainable diet.  Since this is all so new there have not been in-depth studies to draw any conclusions from as of yet. What we do know is that long-term epidemiologic studies have shown that replacing red meat with nuts, beans and legumes (lentils, peas, soy), and other plant-based protein foods, is associated with lower risks of chronic diseases, according to the latest reports from the medical journal BMJ. 

According to Dr. Frank Hu, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Health, rather than incorporating plant foods like legumes, plant-based meat products are generally relying on “purified plant protein,” which means that they are also highly processed. “Food processing may not only lead to the loss of some nutrients and phytochemicals naturally present in minimally processed plant foods; it can also create highly-palatable products. Although short-term, a recent controlled feeding study found that diets high in ultra-processed food cause excess caloric intake and weight gain. Therefore, we can’t directly extrapolate existing findings on plant-based foods and dietary patterns to these novel products,” said Dr. Hu. That means we´re still not exactly sure what this kind of food is doing to our bodies.

The Rise of a Profitable Science-Based Food Industry

Food-Pyramid Plant based Latinx

All of this “save the planet and save our health” action has also proven to be quite a profitable business. A Burger King representative told The New York Times that it had its most successful quarter in four years, thanks to its new Impossible Whopper. Now following in Burger King´s footsteps are several fast food chains like White Castle and Carl’s Jr., also working with companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat who supply the plant-based meat alternatives for a new generation that wants to cut down their meat intake. Also in the works are alternatives for chicken and seafood, as well as lab-grown meats where animal cells are cultured to provide the food product without raising and slaughtering any living creatures.

Like a science fiction tale, plant-based foods are created not to only look and taste like meat we eat, but actually bleed like it, too. How do they do that? In a Harvard School of Public Health article Beyond Meat said it “aligns plant-proteins in the same fibrous structures you’d find in animal proteins,” and then combines fats and minerals that mimic the composition and flavors of meat. Pomegranate powder and beet juice are behind that “bloody” red color. Wondering what gives these burgers their meaty flavor? Impossible Foods uses heme, which is an iron-containing molecule from the roots of soy plants and is fermented in genetically engineered yeast. One drawback is that high intake of heme iron has been associated with type 2 diabetes. 

The technologies being used at companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have threatened the status quo of traditional animal agriculture and, whether the meat industry likes it or not, it’s a clear opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases, as well as other concerns, like the use of antibiotics related to industrial animal-based food production. The more antibiotics the animals we eat consume, the more resistance human beings are becoming to life-saving antibiotics. The U.N. recently declared antimicrobial resistance as a “global health emergency” for its being nearly as threatening as global warming. 

The Meat Industry´s Beef with Plant-Based Mimicry

The meat industry is not sitting pretty with the new competition in town. In retaliation, they’ve hired a public relations company to question the health benefits of what they have referred to as “ultra-processed imitations.” They’ve taken out ads in major newspapers like The New York Times asking: “What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?” Another ad points to a website that compares the ingredients in plant-based burgers from the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger to dog food. Then, an opinion piece in USA Today labeled fake meats as ultra-processed foods that can spur weight gain, although the research on processed foods has not included plant-based meats as of yet, reports The New York Times

The bottom line is that we still need more research about the effects of plant-based foods on our bodies and environment. We also need for this burgeoning industry to supply alternative meat offerings with lower salt content, fewer calories, and less dietary fat if they really want to sell us something truly healthy. For now, I’m sticking to avoiding processed foods, eating a more affordable and sustainable flexitarian diet that’s heavy on veggies and legumes. And keeping good old cow meat as an occasional treat.