First, there were plants. Then came plant-based products, like tempeh, made from fermented soybeans, and veggie burgers, typically mash-ups of vegetables and legumes.
Those days seem so innocent and uncomplicated now. Now, the world is grappling with the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger craze, which has made investors giddy and spurred the health police to ask uncomfortable questions. Aren’t the products that look and taste like actual meat just the latest suspect offerings from the processed-food complex?
The answer, basically, is it depends. The debate rages, as do the competing public relations blitzes. Consumers have to figure it out. The companies making the alternatives should take note.
The stakes are high for Beyond Meat, a Wall Street darling whose stock trades more than six times its early May debut price. The company’s main product, like the one from Impossible Foods, is a burger that is remarkably similar to the kind made from ground beef and even turns brown as it cooks.
Some fans see the patties as ethical choices; cows produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and grass-fed cattle rearing is cited as a main cause for increasing destruction of the Amazon in Brazil.
But while there’s scientific consensus that both people and the planet would benefit from a shift to more plant-based foods, there’s no agreement about how the newest generation of plant-based meat mimickers fit in.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while noting the risks of diets high in red meat, said people should be “cautious” about the health effects of plant-based alternatives that use purified plant proteins rather than whole foods.
Chipotle Mexican Grill, for one, has said it won’t serve these sorts of meat alternatives because they aren’t pure enough for the chain’s “food with integrity” policy. The chain’s vegetarian option is a mix of spices and shredded tofu, a soy product that, because it has been altered from its original form, is technically processed, though, the argument goes, not as processed as some alternatives.
Meanwhile, a group called the Centre for Consumer Freedom bought full-page advertisements last month in the Wall Street Journal and New York Post that trashed plant-based meat alternatives as chemical-laden fakes.
“The public is being misled,” said Niko Davis, a spokesman for the nonprofit group, which declined to disclose the companies or individuals providing funding. Its website describes its mission as opposing a “cabal of activists” that is against personal choice, such as “health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes and meddling bureaucrats”.
Davis said the group isn’t working with the real-meat industry, though the message is similar. Beef is an “overall better nutritional package without a lot of added sodium” or other additives, said Shalene McNeill, a nutritionist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
One target for the critics has been the ingredient heme in the Impossible Burger, which is on menus at the Burger King, White Castle, Red Robin and Qdoba chains and thousands of other restaurants. Heme is mass-produced by fermenting a genetically modified yeast. Some of the hubbub died down after the US Food and Drug Administration said it doesn’t have a problem with it, announcing plans to amend rules to call the use of heme safe as a colour additive in imitation beef.
According to Impossible, the attacks are all part of a “smear campaign to sow fear and doubt about plant-based meat”. The company said its burgers and other offerings are better for people than animal products, delivering as much protein and bioavailable iron as beef without the associated downsides. And the “processed” criticism doesn’t fly, it said in a statement, given that all food involves some kind of processing.
Beyond makes similar claims about its foods.
“We know that consumers are increasingly pulling away from red and processed meat because of the levels of cholesterol and associated health baggage,” said Will Schafer, vice president of marketing. The company also touts what it calls a simple production process that’s more humane and sustainable than livestock production.
There’s a lot of competition out there and on its way for Beyond and Impossible, including from Kellogg's and Tyson Foods, which sold its stake in Beyond before that company went public. The Native Foods vegan chain and Ted’s Montana Grill, co-founded by Ted Turner, are making their own veggie burgers, emphasising what they call “whole” ingredients.
“It just seems to go against the grain to me if you want to eat healthier that you would choose manufactured, chemically-produced products,” said George McKerrow, Ted’s chief executive and co-founder.
As to the question about nutrition, Impossible and Beyond burgers aren’t necessarily a healthier choice, said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at Centre for Science in the Public Interest. Especially if you’re eating out, it’s a tie. “The bottom line is that all burgers at restaurants are too high in calories, saturated fat and sodium, whether beef or plant-based.”
And not all veggie burgers are created equal. Four dozen vegetarian patties by the leading brands range from 4 to 18 grams of fat, and between 2 and 28 grams of protein. A single, four ounce (113 gram) 80/20 beef patty contains 19.4 grams of protein and 22.6 grams of fat. The veggie burgers’ sodium counts goes from 200 to 630 milligrams, 27 per cent of the recommended daily value.
Gene Grabowski, a partner at the communications firm kglobal, predicted a long fight between the real-meat and fake-meat forces. Much is at stake. A Barclays reports estimates the plant-based sector could reach $140 billion (Dh514m) in sales globally over the next decade.
“What’s playing out now are a lot of claims. There’s a lot of confusion,” he said. Consumers will decide who wins. “Ultimately, it’s up to them.”