Science-backed claims that plant-based meats are healthier for both humans and the environment have sparked a global wave of veganism that shows no signs of slowing down. Consumers have become increasingly conscious about doing better by their bodies and the environment, and fast food joints like McDonald’s
, Burger King and KFC are catering to the growing demand. These trends, coupled with recent COVID-19 meat shortages, have contributed to 17 per cent projected growth in the global market for meat alternatives, from 3.6 billion in 2020 to 4.2 billion in 2021. (MarketsandMarkets)
The upsurge in consumer demand for meatless meats has been timely, given the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s recent estimate that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, with 65 per cent of those emissions coming from beef and dairy cattle— but plant-based advocates have questioned whether processed “fake meats” are the best alternative.
Sarah Galletti, the founder of vegan frozen food brand, Tattooed Chef, suggests that many vegetarian “meat” products aren’t as clean as consumers would like.
Some brands make great efforts to mimic meat, using scientifically engineered textures, smells and flavours, with ingredients such as soy leghemoglobin, made from genetically modified yeast, which is used to give the appearance of blood. Products such as these are not necessarily very healthy.
Take Burger King’s Whopper, for instance, and compare it to the meatless Impossible Whopper. The all-beef burger only has 30-more calories than the meat alternative, one more gram of saturated fat and 270 mg less sodium. White Castle’s original meat slider, on the other hand, actually has 70 fewer calories, 4 fewer grams of fat and 170 fewer milligrams of sodium than its meatless counterpart.
The list of ingredients in frozen Morning Star Grillers Prime Veggie Burgers reveals food additives, including Maltodextrin and Soy Protein Isolate as well as sugars and 24 per cent of the daily sodium requirement.
Fake meats that are highly processed and rely on ingredients/ materials/ processes that are detrimental to the environment or human health— while having a lower carbon footprint than even the greenest of red meats— are not necessarily the best option as meat alternatives.
Marco Springmann, a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food indicates that typical plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as poultry and five times the emissions of vegetables and legumes.
And despite producing 10 times fewer emissions than red meat on average, research from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology indicates that “Among meat substitutes… veggie burgers are associated with the highest emissions, at 4.1 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of product.”
“In a way, vegetarian ‘meats’ are very science-made, but to create vegetarian ‘meat’ with a cleaner label, you can focus on utilising a vegetable as the main ingredient, and from there think about how to transform that vegetable into an actual meat dish,” says Galetti, whose Tattooed Chef meatless products, such as Buffalo Cauliflower burgers, have a vegetable as the primary ingredient.
Other plant-based ingredients that are just as savoury and satisfying as meat but with less fat and cholesterol, and can be used as the main ingredient in meatless meats include beets, mushrooms, cassava, chickpeas, lentils and black beans.
Plant based chef, culinary instructor and wellness cuisine consultant, Manuela Scalini, of Plant Based by Manuela Scalini and Food Stories, an Organic and whole foods grocer, is sceptical of meat substitutes such as the Impossible burger, that claim to have the texture, smell and “bleed” like meat but are full of genetically modified and highly processed ingredients.
“As much as I have the utmost respect for what the food industry is doing with all of these alternative meat burgers, I’m still a little bit cautious about the ingredients that we are putting into our body,” says Scalini. “It seems to me that for the sake of creating an entirely plant-based product, we are deviating from wholesome and natural ingredients, which should be as minimally processed as possible. Instead, we are consuming burgers that have been made completely in a lab. If I want to eat a totally plant-based burger, why should I want it to bleed? A meatless burger can be as filling and as comforting as a meat burger.”
Tru Root meat, by Chef Taymer Mason, is another meat substitute made of whole foods such as cassava, lentil and coconut. It is preservative-free, uses 70 per cent local produce from its home base in Barbados and is expertly flavoured with natural spices like smoked paprika.
In the frozen food aisle, Sunshine Burgers Loco Chipotle Organic Veggie Burgers With Sprouted Rice, is an example of a healthy alternative, made of organic cooked black beans, organic ground raw sunflower seeds, organic cooked sprouted brown rice, organic carrots, chipotle pepper, organic chia seeds, organic hemp seeds and flavoured with organic spices. This brand does not contain artificial or industrial ingredients and is not processed.
Analysis of the growing market of meatless meats would reveal that there are sizeable variations in nutritional profiles and carbon footprints across products and brands.
Those who enjoy the texture, flavour and “comfort factor” of meat but would like to have a healthier lifestyle that is also healthy for the planet, should look for plant-based versions that are just as savoury and satisfying but are as unprocessed as possible, non-GMO, organic, made with less fat and cholesterol and come from brands that have an overarching commitment to human health and the environment.