Are Plant-based Alternatives to Meat Actually Good For You?
October 10, 2016
As more and more people shift away from meat and more towards plant-based diets, the food industry is catching on and flooding the market with “alternative proteins”. The market is growing so quickly that some project the global market will reach $5.2 billion by 2020 with the US leading as the top meat substitute market in the world. The assumption by many is that these products are both better for us and better for the planet but does that really hold true?
First let us divide alternative proteins into 3 main categories: 1) combinations of whole sources of plant protein (grains + legumes), 2) products with isolated protein such as pea protein/soy protein, and 3) cultured meat (AKA lab-grown meat).
Many “veggie” burgers on the market fall under the first category and are patties made up of a variety of cooked grains, legumes and vegetables. Examples on the market are Dr. Praeger, Amy’s Organic, and Gardenburger among others. Most are 100% plant based however some may contain dairy such as cheese. These products are typically lower in protein (around 5-10g per 2.5 oz patty) but high in fiber and all of the good-for-you vitamins and minerals that are inherently found in plant-based whole foods.
Another type of veggie burger is the kind that is meant to more closely resemble meat and contains an isolated plant-based protein combined with a variety of preservatives and flavorings. For example the original Boca Burger primarily contains water, soy protein concentrate, cheese and wheat gluten but is also mixed with a slew of additives that act as coloring, flavoring, and preserving agents. The Beyond Meat burger patty which is newer to the market is soy free and vegan, made primarily of water and pea protein isolate but also contains a variety of additives for color, flavor and shelf-life, albeit they are more naturally derived. Because of the protein isolates, these types of burgers will be higher in protein (15g per 2.5 oz) but lower in fiber and complex carbohydrates. When it comes to this category of veggie burgers, it pays to read the label closely and go straight to the ingredient list to help you identify the cleanest version.
The last category, lab-grown or cultured meat, is the main focus of this blog as it has raised some eyebrows with claims to be clean and healthy for us and the environment. In fact, cultured meat substitutes are new and there are many unknowns in terms of its sustainability, food safety and healthfulness.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured meat is essentially meat grown in a cell culture in a laboratory using similar techniques that are used in regenerative medicine. Muscle cells from an animal (i.e. a cow) are combined with protein and other growth-promoting chemicals to promote cell multiplication and tissue growth. After several weeks, cells are then transferred to smaller dishes where they turn into small strips of muscle. These strips of muscle are then combined and compacted into a patty that resembles a burger. While this area of science has been studied for some time, the first edible cultured meat sample was publicized in 2013 in the form of a burger. At present there are not any lab-grown meat products on the market however there are several start-up ventures including Memphis Meats and Perfect Day which are making their foray into the world of meat (and dairy-free) alternatives projected to launch as early as the end of 2017. (It's important to note that it is not yet clear what government agency would oversee this new food supply.) And these companies are gaining some serious backing - in fact, the sole focus of a new non-profit group called the Good Food Institute is to support innovators of plant-based products they dub “clean meat” (as opposed to “cultured meat”).
Supporters of lab-grown meat alternatives claim that these products would be safer (they are produced in a sterile environment without potentially harmful bacteria), free of public health concerns (they do not require the use of antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones found in conventional meat production), healthier (they can potentially be engineered to contain minimal saturated fat and potentially higher omega-3 fatty acids), and better for the environment (theoretically generating significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions). However the evidence backing up these claims is mixed.
While cultured meat may be lower in saturated fat, there may still be potential health concerns. In addition to cardiovascular risk, red meat is also associated with increased cancer risk due to its heme iron, heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and nitrites. Heme iron could be omitted in cultured meat however that is also what gives meat its red color so an alternative coloring agent may have to be explored. Nitrites may still need to be added to cultured meat just as they are currently used in processed meats in order to preserve their color. According to Professor Mark Post, the scientist behind the first in-vitro burger, because cultured meat is sterile, the amount of nitrite needed would be much less than with actual meat products. However, this area seems to still be in development.
Unfortunately, HAAs and PAHs are formed as a result of the Maillard reaction during cooking (the Maillard reaction is the “browning” effect due to the caramelization of the natural sugars in meat combined with protein; this is also what gives meat its great flavor). These carcinogenic compounds would be difficult to get rid of even in meat-free products.
Furthermore, while there are many health risks associated with high beef consumption, there are also many nutritious components such as essential vitamins and minerals that would not necessarily be found in the cultured meat counterpart unless added in synthetic form.
Some studies to date make strong claims that lab grown meat would produce far fewer polluting greenhouse gas emissions compared to cows, pigs and poultry. Furthermore, the production of cultured meat could potentially cut down energy use by up to 45%, land use by as high as 99% and water use by as high as 96%. There are variances depending on whether the comparison is to beef, pork or poultry.
However there are some skeptics who claim that these projections can change once cultured meat is produced on a large scale especially if considering the generation of electricity and heat required during lab production. Furthermore, production of cultured meat is not cheap. The 2-year project to make the first burger cost $325,000. Post projects that once his project is scaled, the meat would cost closer to $30/lb. That may be significantly cheaper than current production cost however that is almost 10x the cost of conventional beef - not particularly sustainable for an average household to purchase.
So let’s say there is a way to create cultured meat that healthier for us and for the planet. How does it taste? Initial reviews were not particularly favorable and as development goes on a balance will need to be struck between making it healthy and palatable. For example, if too little fat is added it will lack the juicy texture and if too many favorable omega-3 fatty acids are added, it may taste too fishy (unless added in the less bioavailable plant-form).
With all this to consider, perhaps we should return to our roots (pun intended) and focus on incorporating more whole plant foods that are natural sources of protein in our diet such as whole grains, legumes, nuts/ seeds instead of manufacturing fake substitutes. These ingredients not only offer plant-based sustainable protein but also contain other essential nutrients the American diet is lacking such as fiber, potassium, magnesium and healthy fats. And most importantly, they require little manipulation to taste good!
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