With all the food choices out there is plant-based meat an option for you? Food manufacturers are shifting hoping to capitalize on a growing number of Americans awakening to the relationship of their food choices and their health. This trend can be seen in numbers. A recent statement from the Plant Based Foods Association claims “retail sales of plant-based foods topped $4.5 billion this year growing by 11% in the last 12 months. And that’s just meat and dairy substitutes, beverages, condiments and spreads”. As one can imagine, this has created a backlash with the US Cattleman’s Association prompting them to file a petition with the US Department of Agriculture to prohibit the term “beef” and “meat” to be utilized when the product was “not derived directly from the animals raised and slaughtered”. Of note, some European countries, such as like France, has already imposed bans on commercial use of the words “burger”, “steak”, “sausage”, and “filet” for plant derived products. Two quickly emerging companies currently lead the way in offering these plant-based alternatives to meat– Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Both brands strategically joined with large shareholders in the food supply chain, namely Tyson and Burger King, to help distribute their brand and increase their product awareness.
Let’s talk about the actual composition of these products.
Impossible Burger ‘s ingredient list includes three products that are worth a discussion:
- Soy Protein Concentrate- 90% of soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered to withstand the large amounts of glyphosate and other herbicides used in the growing process. The company admitted that they cannot keep up with the demand for their product without using GM soy ingredients.
- Natural Flavors- The FDA defines natural flavors as “essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Often, food companies hide behind the very broad definition assigned to natural flavors.
- The nutrition preference would be to more specifically identify the “natural flavor”. In working with Celiac patients I often advise them to steer clear of foods that use them.
- Soy Leghemoglobin – From Impossible foods FAQ’s” We use two key genetically engineered ingredients: heme (soy leghemoglobin) — the “magic” molecule that makes meat taste like meat — and soy protein.” To make the meat have a “blood” like component they take yeast and insert genes for soy hemoglobin. In nature, the roots of soy plants have their own form of heme to carry oxygen. Due to the need for mass production the natural route proved to be inefficient and costly so Impossible used a little biology to keep up with the growing demand for their product.
Beyond Meat ‘s ingredient list also contains an ingredient that is worth mentioning:
- Natural Flavors- Same issue with this is that the ingredient “natural flavors” is not well defined so as to allow a wide range of additives without drawing attention to what specifically they are. People sensitive to food additives should take note.
There are many other plant-based meat alternatives cropping up on our grocery shelves, recipes, and advertisements. It would be best to read each label carefully and look up unfamiliar ingredients. Using the examples above as some of the ingredients you may encounter, I would be looking at the labels to make sure they are labeled:
- Soy Free
- Gluten Free
- Free of Artificial colors and “Natural Flavorings” .
So back to the original question, are these plant-based alternatives a good option for you? It depends on what your goals are… are you looking for an option that tastes like meat to use in a recipe but don’t want to use real meat ? Beyond Meat would be a viable option. However, if you are wanting to make healthier choices, then simply begin to incorporate more vegetables and plant-based proteins that are not manufactured or genetically modified into your diet. Just eat real food. It’s best if it doesn’t even have a label!