Perhaps one day all of our meat will be grown in labs, as an environmentally friendly and humane alternative to industrial livestock production, and as a way to meet the world’s growing demand for protein. According to one source, this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions involved by 80 percent and water use by 90 percent.
The idea isn't that farfetched. Last year, a team of Dutch scientists unveiled the first test-tube burger, which was developed by growing muscle tissue from bovine (cow) stem cells. It got surprisingly decent reviews for taste and texture. The hitch was that the 5-ounce patty cost more than $330,000 to produce—which means we won’t be seeing lab-grown meat (or “schmeat” as some have called it) in supermarkets for at least another decade or two, when prices come down. Even then, it will likely remain a luxury item for some time.
In the meantime, the good news is that the meat substitutes currently available have gotten far better over the years. Some new companies, notably Beyond Meat, deliver plant-based protein that mimics meat exceptionally well—so well, in fact, that even the food journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman was fooled.
Nutrition pros and cons
Made from such ingredients as soy, beans, lentils, wheat gluten, rolled oats, brown rice, nuts, sunflower seeds, and vegetables (like mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers, and carrots), fake meats are also being embraced by some hard-core meat eaters. And you won’t find just faux burgers, sausages, hot dogs, and breakfast patties anymore. Now there is everything from chicken-less strips and beef-less tips to pulled “pork” and “fish” fillets, all ready to heat and eat. Faux prawns are not only vegetarian, but kosher to boot.
Meat substitutes are often high in protein (sometimes as high as the meat counterparts), but lower in fat and calories and cholesterol-free. For example, the beef-free “crumbles” from Beyond Meat provide the same amount of protein as ground beef (10 grams per 2-ounce serving) but less than half the total fat (4.5 versus 11 grams) and no saturated fat. A 3-ounce serving of chicken-free strips has 20 grams of protein, but only 3 grams of total fat and no saturated fat. Another bonus: All veggie meats provide fiber (about 2 to 5 grams per serving), something animal foods lack.
A downside is that meat substitutes are typically high in sodium, comparable to many deli meats. Some have more than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving. And unless they’re fortified with vitamins and minerals, as some are, they tend to be lacking in vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and other nutrients found in meat. Note also that many have long lists of additives, including artificial flavors, colorings, gums, sugars, and preservatives.
You may think it’s environmentally virtuous to choose a veggie burger over a meat burger, yet mock meats are usually highly processed foods that are not eco-friendly in all ways. Vegetarian meals are generally associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on global warming, but according to a 2010 paper in Food Research International, it takes about the same amount of energy to produce a pea-burger as it does a pork chop, calorie for calorie, because of the processing, storing, and other factors involved.
Then there are issues associated with the farming of soybeans. As some critics note, industrial soybean farming has devastated rainforests in Brazil, one of the world’s top soybean producers, and has taken over much of the cropland in America and wiped out grasslands at an accelerated pace in recent years—though, in reality, most soy is grown for animal feed, edible oil, and biofuel.
Another concern is how the beans are processed. Hexane, a chemical solvent used to remove the oil from soybeans in the manufacturing of most processed soy foods, is a neurotoxin and an air pollutant. If you want to avoid hexane-processed soy foods, buy USDA organic products, since hexane is banned in organic food production.
Many soy-based meat substitutes are also made from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans. Though the environmental and health effects of GMOs are still being debated, you can avoid them by looking for “GMO-free” on the label; by definition, certified organic foods are also GMO-free.
5 more faux-meat tidbits
- Meat substitutes vary a lot in fat, calories, sodium, protein, and other nutrients. In general, products made with soy protein, textured vegetable protein, or wheat gluten are higher in protein than those made primarily from whole vegetables and grains.
- Veggie meats are not necessarily vegan. Many contain egg whites (as a binder), casein (a milk protein), cheese (which also adds calories and fat), and some other animal-derived ingredients.
- Meat substitutes often contain common food allergens, including wheat, nuts, soy, and dairy. If you’re allergic to any of these, be sure to check the labels.
- Meat substitutes are far less likely to be contaminated with bacteria, such as E. coli, than real meat—though you should still follow the cooking directions carefully to be safe (and for the best taste and texture).
- Less-processed meat substitutes include tofu, tempeh, and seitan (see "Meet Your Meatless Meats" section) and can be used in place of meat in many recipes.
Bottom line: Whether you’re vegetarian or just want to eat more meatless meals, meat substitutes are convenient and tasty options. But read the ingredients and nutrition labels carefully to know exactly what you’re getting, since some are better choices than others. Keep in mind also that relying on highly processed products as your main source of protein is not necessarily the healthiest way to eat; you’re better off getting most of your protein from whole foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Published December 02, 2014