A “New” Burger
Animal welfare concerns, food safety issues, allergies, and perceived negative effects on the environment have turned the protein staple that often occupies 50% of your dinner plate has from traditional beef, pork, or chicken to vegetable-based proteins and cultured meat. How is food technology influencing our protein options?
Consumers are asking for new sources of protein.
Veggie burgers have been around since the early 1980s, but they are beginning to take on a new life. This may be somewhat surprising given strict vegans and vegetarians only account for roughly 3% of global consumers.
However, according to Mintel Market Research, 59% of consumers in the United States eat a “protein alternative” at least once a week. If you fall into this category, you are considered to be a “flexitarian.”
Through extensive polling, Mintel has found that there are four possible motivators for consuming meatless protein:
- Environmental effects of raising cows, hogs, and chickens.
- Food safety concerns regarding E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.
- Meat related allergies—although these are rare, meat avoidance can be related to food allergies and intolerance.
- Health and wellness concerns associated with super-fruits, super-greens, super-grains, and raw food.
Innovative meatless meat
In response to consumer health and environmental concerns, there are two kinds of meat innovations: creating meatless meat that looks and tastes like ‘real’ meat and “farming” meat from animal cells, without slaughtering a full animal. As a result, large food processing companies are hopping on the meatless bandwagon and new start-ups are popping up throughout the United States
Tyson Foods, for example, has invested a 5% stake in Beyond Meat. Google Ventures invested in Impossible Burgers, a company that works to recreate an animal at a molecular level and takes culinary technology to a new level. These burgers can be found in restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and are made from wheat, coconut oil, potatoes, and heme— a plant based iron molecule that makes this burger look “bloody.” Some other companies include Gardein, known for their bestselling meatless meatballs and fishless fish fillet. Simply Balanced and Trader Joe’s have even created their own chicken-less chicken tenders.
As a variety of meatless options become more available, it is important to determine exactly what you are putting into your body. As “flexitarians”, we recognize that there may be nutritional differences between the traditional protein selection and a veggie-based option. If you are substituting a vegetable-based protein with a meat or chicken option, are you still getting the name nutritional content…?
Meatless vs Meat: is it better for you?
Humans are carnivorous. Our digestive system is made to properly digest meat. Meat protein has the essential combination of protein, vitamins, and minerals to help keep our bodies healthy and strong. The nutrients from meat help our blood cells form, enhance our immune system, help our muscle tissue grow, and support our nervous systems. Keep in mind that while a meatless option is a good alternative, it might not meet the same amino acid, vitamin, and mineral, and antioxidant profile that you can find in an eight-ounce piece of red meat.
While there are a few products on the market that may be able to provide an equal serving of protein, it is important to review the full ingredient panel to see how the rest of the nutritional profile measures up.
For example, you can get 100% of your daily intake of vitamin B12 from one serving of red meat, whereas the Beyond Meat “Beast Burger” will only account for 20% of your daily intake of B12. Yet the reverse is true with iron at 25% and 12%, respectively.
It is very important to look at the complete nutritional panel to see what else you are getting. Looking again at the Beyond Meat “Beast Burger,” there is 480 mg of sodium. That’s about 20% of the recommended daily value! To put this into perspective, a McDonalds plain hamburger contains 125mg of sodium and a freshly ground beef burger (80% lean) contains only 64 milligrams.
How does the taste of meatless options compare to the real thing?
One controversial ingredient that is used in most vegetable-based products is “carrageenan.” You may be familiar with this emulsifier as many nut-based milks, particularly Almond milks, are steering clear of this ingredient. While the science behind the ingredient is not conclusive, there is some concern that it might cause digestive issues when consumed regularly and may be a carcinogenic chemical.
While all of these meatless meat options have branded their products very well, we were still a bit skeptical. Is it possible for meatless hamburgers can really compare to a juicy, lean ground beef burger? We decided the only way to determine if meatless meat products were a viable substitute for meat products was to try them ourselves. The D2D team took a field trip to Whole Foods and bought an assortment of meatless products. Sadly, we must report, overall, prepackaged meatless meat fell short of the real thing. Depending upon the cooking process, the meatless burgers did not elicit the same positive response that a cheeseburger typically does from our hungry families at dinner.
Mintel’s research found that while consumers are willing to give it a try, about 45% of “meatless” consumers think that the meat-substitute is overly processed and/or too high in sodium. Roughly 72% of all global consumers are interested in what the meatless meat is made of— whether it is corn, soy, wheat, or vegetables and what other ingredients have been added to it.
While consumers are looking for alternative protein choices, they typically do not see meatless meat as a nutritious option and would prefer to eat a healthy, traditional protein that is not trying to disguise itself.
The Future of Meat: Cultured Meat
The only food technology that can recreate the similar taste and health claims of traditional meat is “cultured meat.” This growing technology was examined in the International Conference on Cultured Meat in October 2016 in Maastricht University (Netherlands). The conference focused entirely on creating meat grown in a lab. Topics included: tissue engineering and 3D printing, cell production, mass production of avian muscle cells, and technologies needed to bring cultured meat to market.
“Instead of farming animals to obtain their meat, why not farm the meat directly?”
Two companies are spearheading this innovative movement and working to get cultured meat to our dinner plates:
New Harvest, a 501 (c) (3) research institute ‘accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture’ invested $50,000 in Dr. Mark Post who created the first cultured burger at the University of Maastricht. The focus of New Harvest funding is on growing muscle cells in an animal free environment. (Think stem cells which help tissue grow.) This is backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin
The US-based company leading work on cultured meat is Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats believes, “instead of farming animals to obtain their meat, why not farm the meat directly from high quality animal cells?
“We envision that our production process will provide everyone with meat that is consistent, fresh and delicious.“Dr. Uma Valeti
They are developing the process of taking true meat cells from a cow, hog, or chicken and feeding them the nutrients they need to grow into meat. It is not an easy process and has taken months to bring the cost down from tens of thousands to just a few thousand…per meatball! The majority of this cost is from the manpower needed to “babysit” and harvest the cells that grow and discard the cells that stagnate.
The benefits, once the cost comes down, is that the meat does not have any of the E. coli O157:H7. issues that can affect beef or the Salmonella that can come with chicken. Additionally, the cultured meat does not need to be fed, housed, or watered, which ultimately provides less stress on the environment. Memphis Meats expects their products to be cost competitive (and eventually more affordable than) conventionally-produced meat.
There is room for all kinds of protein options.
Memphis Meats – cultured meatball
Memphis Meats is farming actual meat, so the taste is delicious and the nutrition is of high quality. While the taste of cultured meat and traditional meat does not have an apples-to-apples comparison, this is not meant to discredit the need for alternative meat sources. And this is not to say we are hoping that the entire world is going to be eating cultured meat produced without raising animals— but in order to feed a growing population we need to be creative and innovative with growing farm animals as well as “farming meat.”
Consider this: the global population today is 7 billion people, expected to grow to almost 9 billion by 2035. The projected increase is approximately 250 million metric tons in just the next 15 years. Everyone needs some form of protein to maintain a healthy diet. Furthermore, as incomes rise them demand for protein (and subsequent consumption) increases as well. The graphs below provides the GDP per capita growth compared with the protein growth in some of the world’s developing countries.
Protein can take many forms: as animal meat, vegetable protein, and even insects. We discussed the importance of more sustainable protein sources in our article on insect protein. Along with meatless meat, insects are getting more attention as a new protein source.
The Bottom Line:
Meatless meat is a viable protein option. But, if you are replacing traditional meat with a meatless product, it is important to be mindful of how you get your vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Keep in mind that meatless meat can have multiple ingredient additives —so read the label to ascertain if it really is healthier than a lean piece of steak, chicken, or pork!
Gunnars, Kris, BSc. “7 Reasons Not to Avoid Meat (Unless If You Want To).” Authority Nutrition. Authority Nutrition, 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.
“How Many Adults in the U.S. Are Vegetarian and Vegan.” VRG.org. The Vegetarian Resource Group, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.
“Meat: A Key Player on Your Wellness Team.” Meat Institute.org. North American Meat Institute, n.d. Web.
Pimentel, David. “U.S. Could Feed 800 Million People with Grain That Livestock Eat, Cornell Ecologist Advises Animal Scientists | Cornell Chronicle.” Cornell Chronicles. Cornell University, 07 Aug. 1997. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.