Plant-based “burgers” raise meaty issues

By Rebekah Denn

This article was originally published in January 2021

Beet colored plant based burger

Twenty-one years into the 21st century, the future of meat looks…surprisingly meatless.

In our age of modern technology and planetary peril, plant-based “burgers” and “sausages” and other faux meats now provide a realistic substitute for animal flesh. Supporters hail these products as jackpot breakthroughs for supporting animal welfare, making better choices for the environment, and potentially improving global health.

As with most cutting-edge new foods, though, the new “non-meats” raise complex new problems and questions even as they provide solutions for others.

Plant-based proteins

Until recently, diners were advised to treat plant-based proteins as foods in their own delicious rights, not as replacements for anything else. Staples like tofu, popular in Asia for centuries, gained a place in the U.S. during America’s counterculture era of the 1960s and 1970s. Such ingredients were introduced through manifestos like Frances Moore Lappé’s “Diet for a Small Planet”, yet mocked as “hippie food” in those early years and stocked through niche suppliers like co-ops and natural health food stores. (The founder of trailblazing tofu company Island Spring Organics, established in 1976, was former PCC board member Luke Lukoskie.)

As the years went on, tofu, other soy products like tempeh, and other plant-based proteins became mainstream U.S. staples. More options—and more versatile options—naturally followed. Veggie “burgers,” consumers found, could be developed from blends of mushrooms and brown rice, or black beans, or soy protein or vital wheat gluten, or even “mycoprotein” derived from fungi. These meat substitutes were disc-shaped and might taste good on a bun, yet—even slathered with ketchup—no diner would confuse them with hamburger patties.

Then came, as PCC grocery merchandiser Scott Owen put it, “the step tofu could not take.”

Companies developed plant-based proteins that expertly mimicked both the flavor and texture of meat products. These new compounds “chew like meat,” Owen said, and taste like it, too. In taste tests, particularly with the analogues for ground beef, many diners can’t distinguish meat from “meat.” In another new move, these products were marketed toward carnivores, a much larger potential audience than the relatively steady 5% of U.S. consumers who identify as vegetarians. And the targets noticed.

“According to Nielsen, sales of fresh plant-based meat alternatives have nearly doubled every month this year,” wrote. Reports and media accounts suggest the coronavirus pandemic further spiked interest in the products, as snags hit the meat supply chain and as meatpacking plants dealt with outbreaks of the virus among workers. While there’s still an enormous difference in the scale of their product lines—“the U.S. meat market is worth about $95 billion at retail, as opposed to about $1 billion for plant-based meat,” according to Food Dive—momentum is on the side of the plants. (Such products have faced labeling questions, too; see the Sound Consumer article “Labeling Laws Target ‘Burgers,’ ‘Milk’ and Even ‘Rice'”).

Plant-based players

There are currently two main players in the field, though other major companies are conducting research and preparing to enter the market: The company now known as Beyond Meat relied on soybean and pea proteins to introduce a chicken substitute in 2012 (no longer available) and has since advanced to pea-based burgers, sausages and other popular products.

Impossible Foods, its main competitor, manufactures burgers and other products based on soy protein—and contain, more controversially, a compound known as soy leghemoglobin (SL) derived from genetically modified yeast, meant to mimic the heme that gives animal products their bloody, juicy flavor.

Both products also rely on coconut oil.

(PCC does not carry Impossible Foods products because the heme made from genetically modified yeast does not meet PCC’s product standards. The process “is as close to science fiction as food gets,” Owen said. PCC began carrying Beyond Meat products once the company attained Non-GMO Project verification in 2018; it now outsells all other plant-based protein brands at PCC.)

Environmentally, there are strong supports for the products. One study from the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan (with the caveat that it was commissioned by Beyond Meat) said the quarter-pound Beyond Meat burger is considered “functionally and nutritionally similar to beef,” while generating 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requiring 46% less energy, and 93% less impact on land use. The foods are also a clear win for animal rights. Even before the current boom, the World Animal Protection organization estimated in 2019 that quick-serve restaurants alone were saving the lives of 250,000 animals per year by adding Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to their menus.

Surprisingly, though, the majority of consumers sampling these products aren’t doing so for those causes, said expert Melissa Abbott, a vice president of The Hartman Group, which tracks trends in the food industry. Considerable research indicates that consumers’ overriding interest in these products relates to health and wellness.

“What really is driving them, especially the swath of these mainstream consumers, is this idea that ‘It’s better for me,’” she said.

That broad concept includes everything from concerns about heart health linked to red meat consumption to attempts to avoid outbreaks of foodborne illness such as E. coli linked to contaminated meat. The pandemic aggravated many concerns about meat, generating health fears, supply chain disruptions, and a generally increased tendency for shoppers to consider “How can I make better choices?”

As products have spent more time on the market, though, and consumers have more time to dig down into details, more of a backlash has also brewed.

More consumers are now looking inward and saying, “there are a lot of ingredients here that don’t align with my values,” Abbott said. They’ve been criticized as high in sodium and saturated fat. Additionally, by nature the meat analogues are highly processed foods, relying on isolated proteins and other technology-dependent ingredients. They’re a product of the venture-capital tech world, not the typical food-business world, leading to both different expectations and different possibilities. (A whole other can of proteinaceous worms is the current research on cell-based meats, which are expected to enter the U.S. marketplace in the coming years.)

GMOs draw significant public concerns in Impossible meats: The Center for Science in the Public Interest has argued that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should have done a more thorough job in assessing the safety of (SL) before approving it for use in Impossible Foods. And the organization has more recently called on the company and the FDA to determine whether leghemoglobin is linked to increased cancer risks the same way that the heme in red meat has been implicated.

Another concern Abbott expects to become more prominent: Consumers are becoming more concerned about ensuring their diets are free of grains that are treated with glyphosates, a widely used herbicide.

“When they start to look at the ingredients, ‘is it genetically modified?’ (is) one of the main things they’re looking for,” she said, but they’re also starting to ask about the sourcing and processing used on ingredients like seeds, oils and grains.

She’s seen impressive results from small artisan companies developing faux meats with minimal processing and high-quality ingredients and suspects these products will begin drawing larger audiences—providing a lesson for big corporations on where to dial back to reclaim such customers. She also sees some consumers accepting processed foods (here, as in other areas) as occasional convenience foods or even (for old-school veggie burgers) nostalgic comfort foods, part of a diet that also includes whole vegetarian foods and smaller amounts of higher-quality meat. “We don’t see the number of vegetarians or vegans increasing,” she said, just the number of people reducing or balancing out their meat intake.

Generation Z will be the tipping point for creating a more dominant audience for such products, she believes, once the majority leave home and start making purchasing decisions. Their palates are different, she said, as are their values and expectations.

“They’re much more akin to European consumers, where their expectation is, “I will pay more for higher quality food that will keep me safe and healthy, as well as the greater environment.”

Eventually, she said, “They are the ones that are going to flip this.”

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