During the pandemic-forced lock downs and quarantines, food categories from baking ingredients to canned beans have seen gigantic sales boosts. Both plant-based and conventional meats have seen sales spike as consumers filled their refrigerators and freezers when restaurants closed and shelter-in-place regulations led to an increase in in-home consumption.
While there may be fewer innovative products on the shelves, they seem to have something in common: a focus on health, especially the growing interest in plant-based food. Sales data from Nielsen shows that sales of plant-based milk alternatives grew 19% in 2020, and sales of plant-based meats grew 46%.
While meat alternatives are growing, it will take a lot for them to make a dent in the meat industry. After all, the U.S. meat market is worth about $95 billion at retail, as opposed to about $1 billion for plant-based meat (another study said that plant-based meat represents only 0.4% of the entire meat industry). Beef consumption is at record levels. In the U.S., the average person still consumes 221 pounds of beef a year.
It is also worth note that plant-based meat had already been growing quickly before the pandemic. According to statistics from SPINS and The Good Food Institute, dollar sales of plant-based meat grew 38% from 2017 to 2019. A report issued in the summer of 2019 projected this rapid growth would continue, getting about 18.5 times bigger to becoming an $85 billion industry by 2030.
After noting the popularity of plant-based burgers, and the double-digit sales growth in plant-based foods in 2020, food manufacturers are making over other animal-based foods. Stores are not only carrying plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken, they are now carrying eggs made from mung bean protein isolate, bacon made of coconut oil and rice flour, and mock tuna fish made from a blend of pea and soy protein isolates.
Some companies are even creating “blends” now. Examples include 50/50 cow’s milk and almond milk; and burgers made from equal parts pea protein and beef. These products allow companies that sell meat and dairy to get into the plant-based market.
So why are more people eating these plant-based meats? According to a survey from the International Food Information Council released in February 2020, 41% of consumers decided to eat plant-based meat because they like to try new foods. In another study from IFIC that concentrated on comparing plant-based and animal meat, 45% of consumers thought a plant-based product was healthier than ground beef based on the Nutrition Facts label. In the annual IFIC Food and Health Survey released in June of 2020, 43% said that a product with a description of "plant-based" would likely be the most healthy one out of several options. More than half of consumers, 52%, said eating plant-based foods made them feel healthier in a 2018 study from DuPont Nutrition & Health.
I do find it funny that people said eating plant-based foods made them feel healthier, yet the less-processed variety of plants — fruits and vegetables — have not seen an increase in sales.
Whether these products truly are healthier is a massive question. Last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article that said more research into the topic was needed. A study by researchers at Stanford Medicine published in August indicated that plant-based meat could lower some cardiovascular risk factors, but that study was relatively small and funded by Beyond Meat.
These plant-based meat products have the potential to be healthier than regular animal meat because they can be engineered to contain more protein, essential amino acids, and vitamins while reducing the chance of animal-borne illnesses, such as salmonella and E.coli.
But these meat alternatives aren’t perfect. No matter how you look at it, they are the definition of a highly-processed food.
Remember, it’s important to look past the label content claims on any of these new products, and check the full ingredient list.
So what are these products actually made of? I decided to take some pictures of the ingredients and find out.
Impossible Burger - $8.99 / lb
Soy protein Concentrate - This is 70% soy protein and is basically defatted soy flour without the water-soluble carbohydrates. It is made by removing part of the carbohydrates (soluble sugars) from dehulled and defatted soybeans. (see note 1 below)
Coconut Oil – Saturated Fat (the good kind)
Sunflower Oil -PUFA (see note 2 below)
Natural Flavors - flavoring agents that food manufacturers add to their products to enhance the taste, but usually have no nutritional value. Can be obtained by heating or roasting the animal or plant material.
2% or less of:
Potato Protein – Made through a process that removes starch from potatoes in a liquid form. To remove the protein from the liquid, acids and heat are added to coagulate them.
Methylcellulose – Chemical added to prevent the formation of ice crystals in foods which need frequent refrigeration. Also a laxative.
Yeast Extract - Additive used for flavoring
Cultured Dextrose – Sugar. Simple sugar glucose combined with a bacteria to create a culture. Used to prolong shelf life. Dextrose has been linked with numerous side effects, including upset stomach, fatigue, and increased thirst.
Food Starch Modified - Starch extracted from a food and treated with chemicals, including chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, potassium permanganate, sodium hypochlorite, or acids, in order to make the additive keep its texture better at higher temperatures. It is used to cheaply add bulk and improve the texture of processed foods.
Soy Leghemoglobin - A protein found in soy that contains heme. Heme, the molecule that carries iron in plants and animals, is responsible for the color, texture and taste of meat. Give it a bright pink color.
Soy Protein Isolate - Made through a process called acid-washing, soybeans get soaked in acid or alcohol to remove the sugar and dietary fiber. Then, what's left gets dehydrated which ultimately makes a dry powder that looks like any other protein powder. The end result is an incredibly protein-rich product that's cholesterol-free, and contains very little carbohydrates or fat. This extraction process often leaves behind residue from chemicals and metals like hexane or aluminum. While the amount of metal you'll encounter from SPI is unlikely to be toxic, it's generally considered good practice to limit the amount of metals in your diet where possible because in high levels they can be toxic. And things like gasoline fumes, glues, adhesives, cement, arts and craft paints, and stain removers all expose us to these not-so-savory chemicals on a daily basis, so it all adds up. (see note 1 below)
Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E) - Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) chemically combined with acetic acid or succinic acid. Alpha-tocopherol can be obtained from non-GMO sources, especially soybean and sunflower oils. However, mixed tocopherols, containing the other three tocopherols (beta-, gamma-, and delta-forms), are typically only commercially extracted from soybeans and are not present in significant amounts in sunflower oil.
Zinc Gluconate - a popular form for the delivery of zinc as a dietary supplement providing 14.35% elemental Zinc by weight.
Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1) - helps to turn food into energy to keep the nervous system healthy.
Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C) - one of a number of mineral salts of ascorbic acid
Niacin - also known as nicotinic acid, is an organic compound and a form of vitamin B3
Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6) - the hydrochloride salt form of pyridoxine, a water-soluble vitamin B.
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) – Essential Vitamin.
Vitamin B12 - Essential Vitamin. All B vitamins are found naturally in eggs, green vegetables, milk and other dairy product, meat, mushrooms, and almonds.
Beyond Burger (Patties) - $9.99 / lb
Pea Protein - one of the highest quality and better alternatives to animal proteins due to its natural high protein content. Recommended over soy. Unfortunately, in extracting the protein from the plant, you're also leaving behind some of the good stuff, like magnesium, folate, and potassium.
Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil - PUFA (see note 2 below)
Refined Coconut Oil - the refining process removes the coconutty scent and flavor, but it also reduces the number of healthy polyphenols and medium-chain fatty acids in the oil – removing the health benefits of the oil.
Rice Protein - contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be a complete protein.
Natural Flavors - see Impossible Burger list
Cocoa Butter – edible fat extracted from the cocoa bean. Used along with coconut oil to replicate marbling.
Mung Bean Protein - a legume, which tend to have a high amount of protein. Added to increase overall protein.
Methylcellulose – see Impossible Burger list
Potato Starch – see Impossible Burger list
Apple Extract – added so that it browns more as it's cooking
Pomegranate Extract – used create a dye to turn dull, grey-ish brown plant proteins into a more appetizing meat-like pink
Potassium Chloride - common salt substitute
Lemon Juice Concentrate – Lemon juice that was processed i.e. its water content was evaporated after extracting it from the real fruit and then dried up to make a powder.
Sunflower Lecithin - an emulsifying agent that helps bind together fats and non-fats
Beet Juice Extract (for color) – used in addition to the pomegranate extract for color
Simple Truth Emerge Plant Based Chick-n Grind - $7.99 / lb
Wheat Protein - comprised of two insoluble protein groups: gliadin and glutenin. Also known as gluten.
Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil - PUFA (see note 2 below)
Wheat Starch - used to cheaply add bulk and improve the texture of processed foods.
Methylcellulose – see Impossible Burger list
White Rice Flour - used as a thickening agent in recipes that are refrigerated or frozen since it inhibits liquid separation.
Natural Flavors – see Beyond Meat list
Maltodextrin - a white powder made from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat. Even though it comes from plants, it's highly processed. It is an artificial sweetener and a carbohydrate with no nutritional value, and it causes an increase in blood sugar.
Hydrogenated Yeast Extract - made by boiling foods such as soy, corn or wheat in hydrochloric acid to break down the protein into their component amino acids.
Citric Acid - used both as a natural flavor enhancer and preservative
Sunflower Oil - PUFA (see note 2 below)
Tetrapotassium Diphosphate – Used as an emulsifier to preserves a mixture of substances normally incapable of being mixed eg. oil and water
Sodium Carbonate – chemical used as an acidity regulator, anticaking agent, raising agent, and stabilizer.
Tocopherols (Vitamin E) – See Impossible Burger list
(1) More on Soy:
In addition to their vitamin and mineral content, soybeans are a natural source of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that may help protect your body against cell damage and conditions like heart disease.
Soybeans are especially rich in isoflavones, a subclass of polyphenols referred to as phytoestrogens due to their ability to attach to and activate estrogen receptors in your body. Soy isoflavones are believed to be one of the main reasons behind the many purported health benefits of soy-based foods. Boiled soybeans contain 90–134 mg of isoflavones per 3.5 ounces (100 grams), depending on the variety.
Due to their similarity in structure, soy isoflavones are often believed to mimic the hormone estrogen. They can attach to estrogen receptor sites in the human body and affect natural estrogen production and metabolism. The possible manipulation of estrogen as a result of eating soy or soy products is a big potential danger of eating soy. The harmful effects may be exacerbated with non-organic, highly processed forms of soy.
In one study, women who were given soy supplements experienced increased growth of breast cells, at least at first. That's a potential problem because the more breast cells grow, the greater the chance of a mutation that could give rise to cancerous cells that would quickly grow into a tumor. However, there is no evidence to prove this.
Estrogen also causes uterine cells to grow and potentially turn cancerous. One study showed uterine stimulation occurring in 3.37% of women taking isoflavones compared to 0% of those on placebo. However, another study concluded there was no effect on endometrial tissue growth or its associated risks. Also, there is no evidence that isoflavones in soy at high doses increase the risk of uterine cancer.
The research thus far by no means identifies the isoflavones in soy as dangerous. But it does give researchers some pause about how much soy might be too much.
Soy also contains naturally higher levels of goitrogens, which can interfere with proper thyroid function when consumed in excess.
It’s also important to note that at least 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified (meaning it will likely contain pesticides). GMOs were only introduced to the public food supply in 1994 and there has been no opportunity to conduct long-lasting studies of the effects of GMO-containing diets.
(2) More on PUFAs (Polyunsaturated fatty acids):
Vegetable Oils like sunflower oil and other PUFAs are unstable, and break down rapidly when exposed to chemical stress. The refining process not only strips away antioxidants, it makes PUFAs toxic by exposing them to heat, pressure, metals and bleaching agents. This chemically alters the molecules into a wide variety of potent toxins with long names like 4-hydroxynonanal and 4-hydroxyhexanol, aldehydes, and others. These molecules are toxic because they promote free-radical reactions that damage our cellular machinery including mitochondria, enzymes, hormone receptors, and DNA. More on vegetable oils: https://www.holisticathlete.net/food/holistic-hundred-2-0-2-1/
So maybe you feel like despite some of these questionable ingredients, you will still consume this plant-based meat because it is better for the planet.
Helping the Earth is part of Beyond Meat’s mission. The company says on its website that it aims to help relieve constraints on natural resources that raising cattle for beef can cause and promote animal welfare by encouraging people to eat fewer cows.
According to Beyond Meat, creating a Beyond Burger uses 99% less water, 93% less land, and 46% less energy than producing a beef patty.
But any food production will have some impact on the environment, and plant-based meat alternatives are no exception. Most of the environmental concerns around plant-based meat have to do with industrial farming where the field is repeatedly ploughed or harrowed to avoid weed growth in the off season – destroying soil carbon.
When looking at the water statistic, it is important to know, there are different types of water sources (blue, green, gray). Gray is waste, blue comes from lakes, streams and underground, while green is from natural rain. 94% of the water “used” to make typical beef and 97% of the water used to make grass-finished beef is naturally occurring rainfall.
A recent LCA study showed ground beef take takes 280 gallons of water to produce. Grass-finished beef takes 50 to 100 gallons per pound to produce. While a pound of rice requires about 410 gallons to produce. Almost three times as much as grass-fed beef. It is not only rice, as avocados, walnuts, and sugar have similar water requirements.
We still have to ask where, how, and by whom each of the ingredients in a plant-based product is being grown and then processed, how the factory where it’s being mass-produced is being powered and how much greenhouse gas emissions it produces, and how much greenhouse gas is in turn produced by the different operations that supply the plant-based meat’s various ingredients, and packaging, and on and on forever more. Every step of the industrial supply chain — plant-based or not — is fraught with these considerations.
You can read more on the environmental impact of plant-based and regenerative raised animals here: https://civileats.com/2019/06/19/impossible-foods-and-regenerative-grazers-face-off-in-a-carbon-farming-dust-up/
For the products above, I listed the price at my local grocery store as of February 6, 2021. For comparison, I could by industrially produced beef (80/20) for $4.59 / lb and organic grass-fed beef (80/20) for $ 5.99 / lb. So you there is definatley a premium being paid for plant-based meat, which leads me to wonder what it costs to produce.
Industrially produced beef also has plenty of chemicals in it, too—not to mention antibiotics. But when comparing fake versus real meat, don’t lump all meat in the same category. Factory-farmed meat is bad for you. Really bad. But grass-fed, pasture raised, organic meat can provide many health benefits while not destroying the planet. Factory farms, industrial livestock operations that house thousands of animals under one roof, often in miserable conditions that are not only inhumane but also terrible for the environment. Among other things, these farms generate about 70% of the country’s ammonia emissions and 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and create lagoons of animal waste that pollute the environment and sicken people in surrounding communities.
If I was going to rank all of the meat options in order of preference for me, it would be:
1. Organic Grass-Fed Beef
2. Beyond Beef
3. Factory-Farmed Beef
4. Impossible Meat Beef
5. Simple Truth Emerge Meat
What we all need is more non-starchy vegetables. These plant-based meats do contain a good amount of protein by combining several plant sources and have added vitamins, but it’s not the same as eating the whole vegetable. Real food is not processed. Everything in these plant-based meats has been through a machine of some type, usually robbing the vegetable or plant of some of it’s nutritional value.
If you are still reading, I’m sure you have likely decided if you will eat the plant-based meat or not. My recommendation will continue to be that people eat real foods! Animal proteins can be a part of that if you pay attention to where it comes from.
Be sure and visit all of my sponsor’s websites. I sought out these companies because they provide great products and services.
Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,