Will Fake Meat Save Us?

Shilo Zylbergold | Best Medicine
Will Fake Meat Save Us?

image by: Pascal Shirley

Until we have real leadership on climate, changing what we eat is the biggest thing we can do to save the planet - Timothy Egan

Used to be, when you frequented your local burger joint, you would expect to order a double cheeseburger, some fries, and a chocolate shake. My, how times have changed.

More than likely, now, when you pull up to the take-out window, you will be offered your choice between a triple seaweed plantburger or a fakin’burger with added algae and shitake shrooms.

Yes, the plant-based, beyond-meat food revolution is here and it seems to be taking over the North American diet. Whether you are frequenting your local Wendy’s, A&W, or Macdonald’s purveyor of fine eats, you are now being subliminally encouraged to “save the planet” by putting your mouth where your money is and purchasing one of the many meatless burger options.

To make matters even more convincing, sink your teeth into this: the major meat corporations, aka “Big Meat”, have started investing heavily in the meat-free, plant-based companies which have sprung up in recent years. These more environmentally friendly new kids on the block, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, to name a couple, are revolutionizing the choices North Americans have been making in their diets and meal preparations for decades.

Chew on this thought for a while. What started off in the middle of the last century as a small sampling of alternative eating from the vegan fringe, concentrating on fruit and vegetables and avoiding dead flesh and dairy (and giving rise to the much maligned “tofu burger”), now has Big Meat and Big Ag jumping into the lucrative plant-based venture with both feet.

You might have some doubts about how legitimate all this meat substitute movement actually is? Does it really taste as good as the real thing? “Where’s the beef?” you might ask.

Judging by recent trends, beef, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey are on the way out. Likewise salmon, cod, halibut and haddock. Replacing the usual animal proteins found in meat and fish patties are alternate proteins or alt proteins for short. These are comprised of various combinations of wheat, soy, and potato proteins mixed with peas, chickpeas, and coconut oil. Algae and mushrooms are added to give the alt burger that “meaty” flavor.

The key ingredient is the soy bean. Soy is the “spam” of the plant kingdom and perhaps we might be a tad wary to be taking the “oy” out of soy and pumping it into our meal selections. Let us, for the sake of this discussion, set aside for the moment the fact that soy plantations have been a major source for the devastating Amazon Basin deforestation in recent years resulting in the accumulation of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

In fact, it is in the roots of the soy plant that the leading plant-based companies have isolated the “heme”. This is the leghemoglobin molecule that is identical to the hemoglobin found in meat products. As an added touch, the protein from potatoes is inserted into the cellular “soup” so that the product becomes firm when seared.

How big is this plant-based, meatless food craze? Economists are projecting that by 2023, the industry will be worth $2.5 million US. Tyson Foods, the 2nd largest meat producer in America, which for the past couple of years has had a five per cent investment in Beyond Meat, has recently withdrawn from the deal in order to develop its own product. They are now “all in” with the movement and investing considerable funds towards further research into the variety and number of meat-free options.

There’s more to the economics of plant-based foods than meets the eye. Take the pork industry for instance. As a result of African swine fever, pork production has fallen by a whopping ten per cent in China in just this past year. One would think that this would help US pork producers, as well as give a shot in the arm to beef and poultry suppliers. The spanner in the works, however, is the very real possibility that the outbreak of swine fever could spread globally and affect livestock in the western world (and possibly mutate to threaten other species).

According to Olivia Fox Cabane, founder of the innovative cellular cultured meat substitute, Kind Earth start-up, and chair of the International Alliance for Alternative Protein, the birthplace of the new technology was in the Netherlands, with California and Israel now becoming major players. Research in further transformations have resulted in plant-based foie gras, algae milk, and seaweed caviar, as well as forays into engineered substances that look and taste a lot like pork chops and red tuna meat.

Not making such a big splash in the meat substitute market are the recent distribution trials with insect based proteins. It seems that the public is a bit reticent in replacing chicken burgers and all beef smokies with equally nourishing menu items made up of grasshoppers and dung beetles. The general sentiment can be paraphrased with a slightly twisted quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “Four legs good, zero legs better, six legs yuck”.

It’s not all Disneyworld for plant-based protein food, however. Although studies show that replacing meat products with meatless alternatives lowers the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, there are a variety of dangers that may make the switch to plant-based somewhat suspect. Among these are precautions warning about intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome), hormone disruptions (especially estrogen and thyroid), iron-deficient anemia due to low absorbability of plant iron, increased depression resulting from low intake of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12 deficiency, and reduced zinc absorption. Although many of these deficiencies can be corrected with the addition of supplements to the diet, most dieticians and food experts recommend that we obtain our nutrients directly from the foods we eat instead of out of a pill bottle.

So next time you put in your lunch order at one of the almost five thousand Tim Hortons fast food franchises located in fourteen countries internationally, be prepared to take a big chomp on this concept: that BBQ Beyond Burger staring up at you from your platter may not only look, smell and taste like some critter that just wandered in from the pastures of some farmer’s back forty, but it is actually part of the vanguard of a movement that may save the environment by cutting back on greenhouse gases that threaten the globe with climate change. (In case you haven’t heard, the methane produced by livestock agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and has an impact 34 times greater than carbon dioxide to causing global warming.)

And if it puts a few bucks in the pockets of Big Meat and Big Ag, well so be it. Ultimately, it will be the choice of the consumer to decide whether plant-based alt food is just a temporary fad or if indeed it is here to stay. You might say that the earth deserves a break today.

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