From bleeding veggie burgers to lab-grown meat patties, animal-free food options are literally growing every day. Hardly a week goes by, in fact, when there isn’t news about an alternative meat product that claims to be better for the planet and farm animals—as well as for the humans who eat it. But these foods are also facing increasing scrutiny and are not necessarily healthful in all ways.
It’s really possible
The Impossible Burger, from the San Francisco Bay Area startup Impossible Foods, is one of the trendiest “fake” burgers out there. The company’s aim is to replicate the meat-eating experience, including offering a similar nutrient profile to that of real meat, but without harming animals or the environment. The vegan patty, which cost $80 million to develop, with backers including Bill Gates, looks like meat (it even has swirls of “fat”), sizzles on the grill like meat, bleeds like meat, and tastes like meat.
The Impossible name, with stereotypical startup hubris, refers to just how meat-like the product is (it’s “impossible” to believe it isn’t real beef). It has been lauded by some Michelin-star chefs and even got an impressive review from a meat lobbyist.
That meaty taste comes from heme, an iron-rich molecule present in animal flesh. Heme, however, is also found in plants, including legumes such as soy. The company originally sourced the heme from soy but now uses genetically engineered yeast (with soy DNA inserted into the yeast DNA) to produce it; the safety of the ingredient has been deemed GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA. The heme is also what makes the burger “bleed” and what gives it a pinkish interior.
The Impossible Burger is available at more than 10,000 restaurants in the U.S. and parts of Asia (for locations, go to ImpossibleFoods.com/locations).
Burger King’s test launch of its “Impossible Whopper” in St. Louis in April 2019 was so successful that the company began rolling out the plant-based burger nationwide over the summer, with plans to offer it in more than 7,000 locations. It joins other chain restaurants like White Castle, which sells an Impossible Burger slider for $1.99, and Bareburger, where the Impossible Burger with toppings costs about $15 (a few dollars more than the regular beef burger). In August 2019, Impossible Foods received a green light from the FDA to sell the Impossible Burger at retail outlets.
The original Impossible Burger was made primarily of textured wheat protein and potato protein. The Impossible Burger 2.0, released in early 2019, is mostly soy, in the form of soy protein concentrate, along with coconut and sunflower oils, and is now gluten free. Among the other ingredients are small amounts of potato protein, methylcellulose (a source of fiber that is used as a thickener and emulsifier), modified food starch, and added vitamins and minerals (including zinc, vitamins C and E, vitamin B12, and thiamine).
A 4-ounce Impossible Burger (without the bun or condiments) has 240 calories, 19 grams of protein, 14 grams of total fat (8 grams saturated, much of it from the coconut oil), no cholesterol, 3 grams of fiber, and 370 milligrams of sodium. The nutrition content of a regular hamburger varies a lot depending on the cut and percent of fat, but a typical fast food burger of the same size is comparable to the Impossible Burger except that it has no fiber and some cholesterol. Another difference: The animal-derived saturated fat in a regular burger is known to have adverse effects on cardiovascular health, while the coconut-derived saturated fat in the Impossible Burger may have a neutral effect.
The Impossible Burger meets or even exceeds the nutrition profile of beef in other ways, too. It provides more than 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin B12 and thiamine, along with significant amounts of several other key nutrients including calcium (15% DV), potassium (15%), iron (25%), folate (30%), and zinc (50%).
The Impossible Burger is higher in calories and fat than many of the other faux meat products out there (such as those sold by Boca Foods and MorningStar Farms). But what really sets this burger apart are its meat-like characteristics. In addition, the company markets its burger to meat eaters rather than to vegetarians and vegans.
Somewhat ironically, animal activists have criticized it, saying that the burger won’t end people’s desire for red meat if the taste of meat is still promoted. And because Impossible Foods used animals (188 rats)to test the safety of its heme ingredient, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) does not support the company.
The competition goes Beyond
One main competitor of Impossible Foods is Beyond Meat, which makes faux burgers, sausages, and “beef” crumbles to also sustainably satisfy a meat craving, with the protein coming mostly from pea protein isolate (with smaller amounts from mung beans and rice). Other ingredients include canola oil, coconut oil, and various additives such as methylcellulose, lecithin, and potato starch. The products are soy-, gluten-, and GMO-free. A 4-ounce Beyond Burger patty has 250 calories, 20 grams of protein, 18 grams of fat (6 grams saturated fat), 2 grams of fiber, 300 milligrams of sodium, and 25% of the Daily Value for iron.
Beyond Meat products are available in more than 35,000 supermarkets and restaurants in the U.S., including Whole Foods, Target, Carl’s Jr., and TGI Fridays, and they are typically sold alongside real meat in refrigerated grocery cases. Dunkin’ Donuts launched a breakfast sandwich with Beyond Meat in summer 2019.
Beyond Meat, which went public in May 2019, has also expanded to Canada. Like the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger bleeds—in this case due to added beet juice extract.
Among other more recent entries to the fake meat market is Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor. In July 2019, the company announced the launch of its pea-based “chicken nuggets” under the new Raised & Rooted brand and has plans to offer patties that blend beef with pea protein. Shortly after, Kellogg and Hormel Foods announced that they, too, are introducing meatless meat products, under the names Incogmeato and Happy Little Plants, respectively.
3 Sustainable Foods for the Future
The human population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050. In addition to plant-based protein and cellular agriculture, here are three other foods that hold promise for tackling predicted food shortages in a sustainable way.
A fair criticism of all these veggie products is that they are ultra-processed foods with long lists of ingredients that hardly resemble the whole foods that should make up the core of a healthy diet. They can have a place on your plate but should not be what you eat on a regular basis. A better option isto make your own meat-free burgers using healthy whole ingredients.
Also to note: Labeling these meat substitutes “burgers,” “sausage,” or the like is facing growing backlash from the meat industry. Several states now ban food companies from using the word “burger” or other meat names, on the grounds that the terms are misleading. Companies marketing faux-meat products counter that using such terms is the clearest way to convey what the products are and that consumers are not confused by them and so are not likely to feel deceived.
Lab-grown meat: ‘Frankenflesh,’ anyone?
On the other end of the “meat” spectrum is lab-grown meat, made in a petri dish using stem cells and then shaped to look like a cut of meat. Companies from around the world have successfully grown beef, chicken, duck, and fish using this technology.
Some advantages are that scientists can control the nutrition content of the meat (perhaps providing a more healthful profile of fats, fortifying it with vitamins and minerals, and limiting potentially harmful compounds found in meat such as L-carnitine). The meat would also carry significantly less risk of microbial contamination than meat from slaughtered animals.
The first lab-grown burger debuted in London in 2013. The 5-ounce beef patty cost $330,000 to create and was funded by billionaire Sergey Brin of Google. It’s unclear how much lab-grown meat will cost when it comes on the market: Recent estimates have it anywhere from $37 to $363 a pound, but the price has been projected to drop even more, possibly to that of regular ground beef by 2023.
Among the U.S. companies experimenting with the technology are Memphis Meats (in partnership with the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods), JUST Inc. (partnering with a Japanese company to develop lab-grown beef from Wagyu cows), SuperMeat, and Finless Foods. Aleph Farms, an Israeli startup, created one of the first lab-grown steaks.
Growing the meat begins with the collection of stem cells from a living animal. This does not do serious harm to the animal, though it is an invasive procedure. The cells, which can replicate on their own, must be grown in a medium, however, and nearly all the companies use a medium known as fetal bovine serum, which is sourced from live calf fetuses that have been removed from the mother during the slaughter process (and subsequently die). Produced from blood extracted by puncturing the fetal heart, the serum contains growth factors for the stem cells and typically needs to be replenished throughout the meat-growing process, necessitating an ongoing supply of calf fetuses.
One company, Future Meat Technologies, stays clear of fetal bovine serum, opting instead to use a medium made of sugars, salts, and amino acids—and, to keep expenses down, the company has created a process to recirculate the medium.
Lab-grown meat goes by several other names, such as cell-based or cell-cultured meat, cultured meat, in-vitro meat, and cellular agriculture—none of which sound particularly appetizing. Researchers speculate that its commercial success may hinge on public perception, and a name can make or break a product. Other terms are clean meat, slaughter-free or animal-free meat, and craft meat. Some startups are reportedly not happy with the term “lab-grown” and, not surprisingly, do not want their products referred to as artificial, synthetic, or fake meat, either.
A challenging aspect of this emerging technology is how to regulate it. The USDA and FDA have teamed up to oversee cellular agriculture and provide guidelines for safety, production, marketing, and labeling, but they will likely face many hurdles from industry and other groups. Similar to the veggie “burger” name debate, one area of contention with lab-grown meat is what to call these products: The meat industry is challenging the use of the term “meat,” saying it is misleading and that cell-cultured proteins should have their own standards of identity, different from beef and other meats.
Finally, how do lab-grown burgers taste? “Close to meat,” according to a food critic who sampled the product that debuted in London in 2013. It had “quite some flavor with the browning” and a “perfect” consistency, though it was “not that juicy,” due to the leanness of the patty. More recently, a reviewer described lab-grown foie gras as “rich, buttery, savory, and very decadent.”
Whether made from plants or grown in a lab, these high-tech new “meats” provide protein sources that take a much smaller toll on the environment and can reduce the number of animals killed for food. Some may even be safer and healthier than traditional meats—beef grown without the use of antibiotics, for instance, and cell-based tuna that is free of mercury. If the technology continues to develop—and if regulations are put in place, in particular for cell-based meats—such foods may indeed become the wave of the future, though even a ripple is welcome when it comes to feeding a meat-loving world without the drawbacks of traditional meat.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see The Great Food Transformation.
Published November 07, 2019