By Matt Reese
It is hard to miss the new products in the grocery store and the nearest fast food restaurant — they look like meat, but they are plant-based. Products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are generating plenty of consumer buzz, questions and misinformation which, admittedly, have some in the livestock world a bit concerned.
“As a meat scientist I have received various calls and questions. It is a very hot topic today in the United States and around the world,” said Lyda Garcia, the Extension meat specialist with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences. “It is 2019 and we are a big melting pot in the United States. An advantage to that is we have a variety of different tastes. There are many options to choose from, which I think is a phenomenal thing, but I don’t think it is fair to state that one product is better than the other. I believe the animal will never go away. We will always have that and then be creative to offer new products to people who do not want the real meat product. In academia our job is to provide the facts. My job is to throw the real deal at you and allow you to draw your conclusions. What works for you and best fits your needs? Then, let’s go from there. We don’t need the either side trashing each other. After all, in the big scheme of things, we are all in this together.”
With that in mind, though, Garcia is quick to point out that, scientifically speaking, there is still quite a bit to learn about alternative meat products and their culinary utility.
“There are still a lot of unknowns out there. We have yet to get a sample to really test the functional properties of these products — the muscle pH, its water holding capacity and such things,” she said. “With that being said, we are very unsure on exactly what it is and what to call it.”
Garcia said there are a number of reasons consumers are demanding alternatives to real meat products. One of them is concern about animal welfare. This is a topic that comes up often during Garcia’s travels with the Ohio State University Meat Judging Team.
“One of the main factors this even came about is a lot of people were concerned about the animal welfare piece of this. You have to understand that sometimes. There are a lot of scientists who have devoted a lot of time to try and mimic meat,” Garcia said. “I have been travelling quite a bit with the meat science judging team and when we are wearing the jackets or meat science shirts, we tend to draw some attention and that can lead to conversations about alternative meat and so forth. Usually I try to educate and share about what we do. I purposely talk about the many quality assurance programs currently in the United States that are intended to help the animal welfare piece that also gives the animal the utmost respect up until harvest.”
In addition to concerns about animal welfare, some consumers believe that plant-based products have health benefits over real meat. Garcia said that is not necessarily the case.
“If we talk about protein, animal protein is probably the best form of protein you can ingest in its all-natural form. When it comes to plant protein, it is less expensive and a lot of these meatless proteins you hear about are soy or potato protein, or even a pea protein isolate. It is still a protein,” Garcia said. “There are studies out there that show we need a certain amount of cholesterol and saturated fats to maintain homeostasis when it comes to hormone production, however, to be consumed all in moderation of course. When it comes to caloric intake of saturated fats, meatless burgers are comparable with real meat. The main contributors of saturated fats in meatless burgers include coconut oils and other things that are very comparable.”
There are differences on the ingredient label, however, that do not favor alternative meat patties.
“When you look at sodium intake, this is where the meatless patty is going to surpass a conventional patty. In a natural ground beef patties, we don’t add sodium. The only ingredients found in ground beef and beef patties are lean meat and fat, unless they are pre-seasoned, which will be stated on the label. In these processed meatless patties, we need to add flavor to make sure it sells. That sensory attribute is going to be key,” Garcia said. “So, if you pay attention to your nutrition label, that sodium level is going to be extremely high with the meatless patty. If you are into veganism and you are trying to get away from animal products, then maybe these alternative meat products may be for you. If you are looking more on the nutritional standpoint, the consumer is held accountable to read the facts and pay attention to what they are consuming using the nutrition label. All we can do there is share the science and the resources and then leave it up to them.”
There are also concerns among some consumers about the environmental impacts of livestock production. Some shoppers feel that plant-based foods are environmentally superior. Science, however, suggests this is not the case. Sara Place, with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), is working to correct the misinformation out there and share the very sustainable story of U.S. beef production.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about greenhouse gas emissions and beef. Methane is a greenhouse gas and that is something we get attention on with cattle. There is no doubt that cattle make methane and they haven’t just started doing that in the last few years. It is a greenhouse gas,” Place said. “However, when we look at data sources like the EPA puts out in a greenhouse gas emission inventory, the total direct emissions that come from beef cattle production are 2% of emissions. Transportation is 26% of the emissions and electricity is about 30%, just to put it into context. We produce greenhouse gas emissions [in the beef industry], just not to the extent that sometimes the media attention would lead you to believe.”
In contrast, beef production has many positive benefits for the environment.
“The value proposition for beef is really strong. We call it upcycling. Cattle are taking things that are of little to no value to people and making a much higher value product. They are making more high quality protein for the human food supply than they use,” Place said. “Most of the production land we use for beef can’t be used for anything else, so we are expanding the land base available for producing food.”
The factual realities of the nutrition of alternative meat products and the environment are important for consumers to consider, though those considerations are often disregarded by the general marketing of the food products and the bulk of information seen by many consumers. This is a concern of NCBA.
Allison Rivera, NCBA executive director of government affairs, recently delivered remarks on behalf of cattle producers at a U.S. Food and Drug Administration public meeting on horizontal approaches to food standards of identity modernization. Rivera emphasized concern with fake meat products that are marketed, packaged, and displayed in a way that trades on the good name, solid nutritional profile, and sound environmental record of U.S. beef. She asked FDA to enforce improperly labeled alternative meat and beef products while also establishing new definitions and setting strict parameters around the use of terms like “plant-based.”
“Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) is granted sole regulatory oversight of meat products. Before reaching the end consumer, beef undergoes a rigorous inspection process and all beef product labels are subject to a mandatory pre-approval process, which guarantees the factual accuracy of those labels. As such, beef has a reputation among consumers as being a safe, healthy and wholesome choice of protein,” Rivera said in her comments. “Plant-based protein products mimicking beef, or we at NCBA often refer to as ‘fake meat,’ on the other hand, are not held to the same set of standards — be it food safety or labeling oversight. These products’ health and nutritional values are not congruent with beef products, but by using the term ‘beef’ and other terminology traditionally associated with meat food products, consumers are led to believe fake meat is held to a similar set of standards.
“NCBA is concerned with fake meat products which are marketed, packaged, and displayed in a way that trades on the good name, solid nutritional profile, and sound environmental record of U.S.- grown beef. Further, a number of ‘plant-based’ fake meat products are now positioning themselves as a ‘more healthful’ form of beef. Some of these product labels use terms like ‘beefy,’ “’veggie beef,’ or ‘just like beef,’ while others make implied claims not backed by science in an attempt to position their products as superior in the marketplace. Our most recent research indicates that of the consumers who are purchasing alternative protein products, 56% believe these products are nutritionally superior even if they are not.”
As an example, Rivera points to the Beyond Meat website stating there is a 16% increased cancer risk and 21% increased heart disease risk associated with animal-based meats.
“A graphic on their website combines these two percentages for a total of 37% under a broad ‘improving human health’ category. The reference accompanying this graphic is to a report published by the Archives of Internal Medicine. It’s unclear whether the company is implying consumers are 37% more at risk by consuming animal-based proteins, or if consumers will be 37% healthier by purchasing their plant-based alternatives,” Rivera said. “What is clear, however, is that JAMA Internal Medicine which took over Archives of Internal Medicine, has no record of any publication under the title listed on their website and without the author, publication date, or any other identifying information, it would appear Beyond Meat’s priority is to grow their market share through misleading communications efforts rather than providing consumers with transparent, science-based information to make informed purchasing decisions.”