Plant-Based Meat: Hype or Health Hero?

By Anushka Gupta

The psychological illusion of a soy nugget being ‘dressed up’ as a beef patty encapsulates the worldwide trend of plant-based meat. There has been a recent surge in the drive towards being healthy through a high protein less fat diet in which the idea of plant-based meat stemmed from.  Fast-food chains like Burgreens, KFC, Burger King, Carl’s Jr. and Subway have already adopted plant-based meat in their menus. 

The plant-alternatives used as meat replacements need to imitate the nutrition and sensory characteristics of real meat. Nutrients like iron, protein, fat and b-vitamins usually come from meat. Since meat is mainly protein, it is usually replaced with the plant with most protein – legumes. Their fractionated forms are used instead of the whole thing. This consists of hydrolysates or concentrates and have functional characteristics resembling meat like solubility, viscosity, emulsification and dough formation when cooked. Processes like shearing, hydration and cooking aid in downplaying the beany taste and smell. To exact the texture of meat, unsaturated and saturated fat globules are mixed in with legumes to imitate the marbling pattern seen on meat – chunks of fat layered on top of muscle. (Parkinson, 2020) Also, the legume starch has a lot of gelling (tensile) strength, edible film formation (Paquini et. al, 2018) and crunchiness that simulates the “‘snap’ of a sausage or the bite of a chicken breast” (Parkinson,2020).  The last characteristic to perfect is the aroma of meat. This is due to a protein called haem (normal function is to attach to myoglobin and transports oxygen around the bloodstream). When meat gets cooked, its myoglobin proteins open up and release haem which catalyses the plethora of reactions responsible for the meat’s reddish shade, pulpy texture and ambrosial aroma. Thus, amongst the vegetarian foods, this haem is found in the roots of the soybean plant known as leghaemoglobin. However, it is not found in high quantities naturally so scientists use recombinant proteins with the aid of bacteria to ‘artificially’ create an ‘imitation haem’ protein. For example, Impossible Foods (California based company that focuses on developing plant-based substitutes for meat) have used yeast to produce leghaemoglobin.(Kinney,2019) 

According to PETA, approximately 29 million cows, 9 billion chickens, millions of pigs, 245 million turkeys, 31 million ducks and tens of billions of fish and shellfish are killed for factory farming purposes, for human consumption.  This not only has dramatically impacted the animal ecosystem but also “contributed to a range of problems from increasing antibiotic resistance to the climate crisis” (Piper, 2020). As commonly known, greenhouse gas emissions are directly correlated to climate change/ global warming and this is 15% due to livestock cultivation. Therefore, it is evidenced that Plant-based foods have the potential to reduce ‘carbon footprint’. Typically, you have to “feed an animal 10 calories of plants to get one calorie of meat, so you can expect plant-based foods to have about one-tenth the carbon costs of animal-based foods”(Piper, 2020). In addition, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a worldwide shift to a low/no meat diet is beneficial to keep global warming at a ‘1.5 degrees Celsius’ limit in conformity with the 2015 Paris Agreement (international treaty of climate change). Other sustainability advantages of plant-based meat are that the pastureland, and so the deforestation, is reduced due to less beef production; water and nutrient pollution is similarly lessened in most cases too.

Plant-based meat also serves a number of health benefits and people are more accepting of these as the global perspective nowadays drives towards being healthy in all aspects. The U.S Department of Health & Human Services reports that eating large amounts of red meat can lead to high cholesterol and increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and other potentially deadly diseases. WHO has also classified these red meats as well as processed meats such as bacon, beef jerky and sausages as carcinogenic, creating high alarm for an individual’s health. So, plant-based meats would be healthier since they contain no cholesterol and in turn contain high amounts of fibre – a nutrient that maintains bowel health, reduces cholesterol levels, and aids in reducing blood sugar levels (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2021). Companies working with plant-based meat are also able to fortify the meat with a range of vitamins and minerals. Using Impossible Foods as an example again, an article in Nature Communications, suggests there is evidence that their patented plant-based beef creation has much higher vitamin B12 content compared to tofu (traditional plant-based), chicken, pork, beef and Quorn (mycoprotein derived from cells) and also has a similar high protein content compared to the animal-based meats (Rubio et. al, 2020).

However, there are some problems that have not been overcome and disadvantages to plant-based meat surrounding controversy to its benefits. Christie Lagally, CEO of Seattle Food Tech, which makes meatless chicken said “One of the big concerns in the plant-based meat industry is that it really does have to scale” (Piper, 2020) so manufacture redesign is a huge aspect to consider for the growth of the industry and ensuring this concept and product reaches worldwide and to have flowing stock. Environmental-wise using soybeans may not be sustainable. Hexane, a chemical used to extract the oil from soybeans, is an air-pollutant and is a neurotoxin (Olsson, 2019). 

Additionally, there are speculations that this “artificially concocted” plant-based meat may not be as healthy as it is advertised to be. Registered dietician, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of “Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table,”, Bonnie Taub-Dix has stated that “some of these plant-based burgers are not necessarily healthy due to the number of calories, sodium and saturated fat they contain to make them taste so, well, meaty” (Wida, 2020). Coconut oil and palm oils are usually used as substitutes, however they are high in additives which aren’t good for the health (Olssson, 2019). Some vegetables used such as soy may be processed or are genetically modified according to registered dietitian Maura Rodgers (Ogletree, 2019). 

Therefore, whilst the plant-based meat concept is fast moving in this health infatuated society with its benefits to the environment, human health and booming industries, there is still a large controversy surrounding this. There is scientific evidence about its benefits, but there is still a need for it to be explored more in depth to maximise its benefits. 

References:

How to add more fiber to your diet. [Online] Mayo Clinic. ; Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983

Kinney M. Formulating With Animal-Free Ingredients – IFT.org. [Online] Ift.org. Available from:https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2019/june/features/formulating-with-animal-free-ingredients 

‌Montalvo-Paquini C, Avila-Sosa R, López-Malo A, Palou E. Preparation and Characterization of Proteinaceous Films from Seven Mexican Common Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.). Journal of Food Quality. [Online] 2018;2018: 1–8. Available from: doi:10.1155/2018/9782591

Ogletree K. How Healthy Are Plant-Based Meats? [Online] Next Avenue. Next Avenue

Olsson R. Are Plant-Based Meats A Healthier Alternative? | Banner Health. [Online] Bannerhealth.com. Available from: https://www.bannerhealth.com/healthcareblog/teach-me/rise-of-plant-based-meats 

Parkinson A. Introduction to Plant-based Meat – Avery Parkinson – Medium. [Online] Medium. Medium; Available from: https://averyparkinson23.medium.com/introduction-to-plant-based-meat-f12630bc3cfd 

Piper K. The rise of meatless meat, explained. [Online] Vox. Vox; Available from: https://www.vox.com/2019/5/28/18626859/meatless-meat-explained-vegan-impossible-burger 

Wida, Erica Chayes. All the popular fast-food chains offering plant-based meats. [Online] TODAY.com. TODAY; Available from: https://www.today.com/food/all-popular-fast-food-chains-offering-plant-based-meats-t171328 

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