Written by Denise Tam, Holistic Nutritionist
With the increase of fake meat and the vegan trend that is reaching a point of religiosity I feel like we need to take a step back and really look at what we are consuming. It is no different from the importance of looking at label claims of organic, low sugar or gluten free with a questioning eye. Yes, there are unhealthy organic products on the market. And the same goes for supplements and other ‘super foods’, but I’ll leave that for another post.
Before I dive into dissecting the Impossible Foods Burger and Beyond Meat Burger - two largest fake meat companies in the market, I’d like to first give you some background on my own vegan, vegetarian and now plant based grass fed beef diet.
My story as a vegan/vegetarian/omnivore
I was a vegan for about a year and a half upon the cancer diagnosis and later felt my body was not recovering and lacking energy so included some organic free range eggs into my diet. I continued on with this vegetarian diet for 9 years and only recently in the past year or so did I start to include some grass fed beef and some wild caught seafood into my meals but with vegetables still being the leading actor in my meals.
I initially adopted a vegan lifestyle for health reasons with ethical reasons later driving me to continue on this diet. But having dug deeper beneath the surface I’m now realizing that I may not have looked at our delicate ecosystem from a birds eye view and only focusing on the pain and where our earth is ‘bleeding’. The wounds I focused on are the typical argument for veganism which is mainly sustainability and animal cruelty. I’m writing this, knowing I’ll likely get a lot of flak but I continue to welcome a healthy dialogue because I don’t believe that I see it all, and realizing more and more as I delve into nutrition that I often miss many marks.
Having said that, I do believe there are some questions and issues not raised or discussed in this dialogue surrounding veganism and vegetarian diets. My issue is not with the diets or lifestyle by any means, but more with the companies that are driving this movement (or religion!) that are, in my opinion, playing with the hearts of the consumers that are genuinely concerned about these issues of health, sustainability and ethics.
So here we go!
Is fake meat healthy?
Let’s look at the ingredients….
Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, Potato Protein, Thickener (E461), Cultured Dextrose, Yeast Extract, Modified Starch, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Antioxidant (E306), Soy Protein Isolate, Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
Soy Protein Concentrate / Soy Protein Isolate
Many fake meat companies use soy as their main source of protein. Soy on its own, is not the enemy, but what makes it worrisome is the protein concentrate and isolates, in fact, any kind of isolate or concentrate is worrisome as it often involves chemicals in the processing and extraction. Read more about the dangers of unfermented soy.
Soy Leghemoglobin (Leg hemoglobin)
Soy Leghemoglobin (SLH) is a genetically engineered yeast protein that gives Impossible Burger the meat-like texture. The heme iron found in SLH is also what makes your Impossible Burger ‘bleed’. The FDA however has not confirmed this ingredient to be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), simply because it’s not classified as a food or food ingredient and because there is not enough research on it. In this same open source document, Impossible Foods admitted that there were an additional 46 ‘unexpected’ and unidentifiable proteins found in this ingredient, none of which were assessed for safety.
The FDA concludes “that the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of SLH for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”
Yeast extracts contain naturally occurring monosodium glutamates or MSG but not at the same levels. It’s used as an additive and to add flavour. It’s generally recognized as ‘safe’ but of course at higher doses, like MSG, it can cause allergies and reactions.
Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).
Pea Protein Isolate, Rice Protein, Mung Bean Protein
Though the plant protein used is better than soy, I’m still not convinced when I see the word isolate or concentrate knowing what kind of processing is involved. Having said that, this is a clever combination with bean and rice protein to provide all of the amino acids making it a complete protein.
Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil
I have issues with the refining of oils as again there’s a processing involved that typically involves the chemicals. Canola oil, being third on the ingredient list, raises a red flag as canola oil is high in omega 6. If the canola is expeller-pressed, it’s likely using high heat and pressure to press the oil out which would damage these delicate oils. Our modern diet is extremely high in omega 6 and plays a part in the chronic inflammation and diseases that we struggle with today. Interested in learning more about canola oil processing? Watch this 3 minute video on how canola oil is made.
And apart from the ingredients, comes the sodium levels. In comparison to a 4oz beef patty that has 75mg of sodium, the Beyond Meat Burger has over four times (380mg) the amount of sodium in its 4oz burger.
Impossible Meat, Beyond Meat or neither? With the questionable ingredients in both my conclusion is neither. I’ve made my own veggies burgers with mushrooms, lentils and oats. You can also make them into vegan meatballs, freeze them and reheat them easily so they can be just as convenient as these frozen patties. From a health perspective I will take a pass when it comes to these fake meats.
What about the environment?
Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat tout impressive stats comparing their ‘meat’ to beef.
|– 90% less GHG emissions
|– 89% less GHG emissions
|– 99% less water
|– 87% less water
|– 93% less land
|– 96% less land
However this is only part of the picture.
What’s important to look at in any kind of study is to clarify the question we are trying to answer, who is behind (funding) the study, and other variabilities that may influence the results.
The question : Are plants, or in this case, fake meat, really contributing to the recovery of our environment?
Interestingly enough, Quantis International, a sustainability consulting group showed that the Impossible Beef burger did indeed contribute less GHG emissions than regular feedlot beef. However on the flipside, the same company also studied the life cycle analysis of White Oak Pastures that adopts regenerative agriculture and it showed that their beef operations not only produced less emissions but had a net carbon sink. Meaning that…
grass fed regenerative beef operations can actually remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Life is the difference between dirt and soil.
The entire food chain is made by bacteria in the soil. Just a handful of our soil contains more bacteria than the number of people in the world. But with the way we are using or rather abusing our soil, research estimates that we may only have 60 years of farmland left. Healthy soil can hold 25,000 gallons of water per acre, reducing the risk of drought and flood while plants grown in healthy soil can act as a storage container of atmospheric carbon.
Improving our current model of farming and regenerative farms is the only way we can get the nutrients back into the soil. And regenerative beef operations like that of White Oak Pastures can actually improve the soil quality and health. And though fake meat like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are less of a greenhouse gas emitter than conventionally raised factory farms, the fact of the matter is that it’s still a contributor.
Then there’s the issue of monocrop farming which is incredibly harmful to the environment. The amount of peas, mung beans or soy you need to grow to get the protein needed for health is tremendous. Consider also the fertilizer and pesticides used in growing these plants that deplete our soil and contaminate our water.
How I see this is that we are just plastering a bandaid over the issue and refusing to really look to the root of the issue, which I believe to be, our over consumption of food in general. Instead we have created these risky fake meats to make ourselves feel better about our treatment of the earth without too much disruption to our own lives.
It’s hard to refute the data. I’m clearly against all factory farms and believe that fake meats like Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger, disregarding the questionable ingredients, can provide an option for the occasional craving of a burger or meat like texture. However we cannot ignore the fact that traditionally raised cattle on grassland with proper regenerative farming practices can in fact be healing our land that we have abused through the years. Should we not then be focusing our conversation around whole organic foods, pasture raised cattle and decreasing our food consumption (and food waste) instead? I understand it’s a matter of progress not perfection, but what is worrisome is that many of us are getting too used to the bandaid and refusing to look at the wound itself.
But I don’t believe in killing animals
The ethical argument is a very personal one, and I respect those who hold a different opinion on this matter. I stand firmly against the animals that are being tortured in these modern farms. We were given dominion over these animals, but with power comes responsibility, and we are far from being responsible guardians of these lives.
Again, we need to look at the big picture.
Diana Rogers, registered dietician for the Sustainable Dish put it aptly, “it is not more humane to destroy soil and eliminate natural biodiversity by growing mono-crop soy for fake burgers, which require chemical agriculture. Think of all of the animals this type of farming kills!”
How many animals are we talking about? According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics by Fisher and Lamey, a very rough 7.3 billion animals are killed every year from plant agriculture, this includes birds, fish, field mice, insects, snakes, and other native wildlife. Although this study and its calculation is controversial and has its own shortcomings, these are issues that we are not including in this animal welfare dialogue.
Ethics can be debated to the ends of the earth, but in an honest debate we cannot deny the otherside of the argument. How we measure the value of life is personal. How I see it is at the end of the day, we are not separate from this delicate ecosystem. Each living organism, from the bacteria in our soil, to insects, to fish, to pigs and to cows all play an important role in this system and how it’s run. They should all be valued and taken into account when making decisions that affect them.
Dana Perls, Food and Tech manager at Friends of the Earth sums it all up nicely in her quote:
“Instead of investing in risky new food technologies that are potential problems masquerading as solutions, shouldn’t we be investing in proven, beneficial, regenerative agriculture and transparent, organic food that consumers are actually demanding?”
So let’s be brave enough to dig a little deeper into the issues and make changes that will have a lasting impact for our health, the wellbeing of the animals and the sustainability of our planet. Let’s continue the conversation.