We live at a time of growing choices regarding food substitutes. But how good are these new products when compared with the old staples? Think of margarine versus butter. Or, more recently, plant-based meats versus the real McCoy? Was William Shakespeare right when he wrote, “A substitute shines brightly as a King, until a King be by”?
A report from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University provides plenty to chew on. Deciding what to do isn’t just a personal decision. It also involved implications for our planet. According to researchers at Tufts, sales of meat alternatives increased 30% in 2018. This increase is expected to continue, since plant-based, meatless “meat” has become available at several fast-food outlets. But how good are these products?
Nicole Negowetti, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, says, “These new plant-based meat products are designed to replicate the taste, texture, and chemical composition of meat.”
The point is, producers of these new foods are trying to fool us. They want consumers to have the impression they are eating meat, when in fact they are not. As Nicole Negowetti says, whether it’s meat from a cow, pig, or any other animal, meat is muscle, which is essentially protein and some fat. Meatless manufacturers are extracting these proteins and fats from plants and combining them to mimic the characteristics of animal meat.
It sounds simple, but there is more to the story. Nicole Blackstone, assistant professor in the Friedman School’s Division of Agriculture, Food and Environment warns that some of these meatless products are so highly processed that they bear no resemblance to their sourced plant foods. Particularly those products manufactured on a large scale are often highly processed and include in novel components.
For instance, to achieve the colour and meatiness that blood gives to red meat, producers have found a way to grow heme iron in soy plants. This is the type of iron found in meat and an essential element of blood production. So, what about the health risks of this scientific replication? For the moment, Blackstone says we don’t know the answer.
We do know that beef-mimicking hamburgers are similar in calories and protein and lower in saturated fats. However, many meat alternatives are higher in sodium than regular meat. Higher sodium intake can lead to higher blood pressure, causing hypertension.
There is one major benefit to eating substitute meat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six North Americans develops food poisoning every year from a variety of food products. Unlike regular meat, substitute meats are far less frequently the cause of E. coli or Salmonella infection. In addition, manufacturers do not have to add antibiotics to these products that can trigger superbug antibiotic resistance. Nor do these products contain hormones.
Nicole Negowetti says, “The key question is, can substitute meat products be the tool to help people decrease their intake of real meat? Global red meat consumption is increasing, and factory farming of animals is known to be devastating to animal welfare and environmental sustainability. I am calling for a broader interpretation of ‘healthy’ to include planetary health.”
Different studies and producers report that a typical meatless hamburger uses 75-99% less water and has about a 90% smaller carbon footprint compared to a regular burger.
According to a Nielsen survey, 62% of North Americans say they would replace meat-based protein with plant-based protein.
Ms. Negowetti claims the bottom line is that people will buy alternative meat products if they are delicious and cheap. This would also benefit our planet. What would Shakespeare say today? Possibly, “A substitute shines brightly as a King, even when a King pass by.”