Will Meatless Meat Save Us?

Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have made their media debut and are deep in the marketing plans for their publicity campaign. Their products are now available at fast food restaurants and coming soon to as many food-product streams as possible. Venture capital firms are bullish on the companies and the financial outlook in the press is positive. While meatless meat is the latest in processed foods to be offered to the consumer, the products, like their predecessors, follow the arc of other highly-processed food products rigorously marketed to a skeptical audience.

The marketing departments of these meatless meats are pursuing two sales pitches to woo us to their savory offerings. The first pitch is for human health, complete with a set of points of how this product is better for the human body than the meat it is replacing. They are arguing that meatless meat is the healthy choice. The second pitch is a series of arguments about climate change and degradation of the environment, and how these products benefit the planet. Their pitch is that each of us can help save the planet from ourselves by choosing meatless meat. Between the two arenas of argument stands the acclamation: they are tasty, and they taste like the meat these products are replacing; therefore, you should eat them.

The first pitch takes a page from the Heart Association, removing red meat from the human diet promotes better health. The heart and the rest of the circulatory system benefits from the removal of large quantities of animal fats in any given diet is a true, evidence based statement. These meatless meats do meet this healthier heart criterion by removing animal fats. However, these products are still higher calorie foods than grains and vegetables. They are not necessarily healthier either. The complex composition of these food products provokes other issues of human health.

These meatless meats are highly-processed, which is only a descriptive term. No scientific consensus exists on the definition of a processed food. Pasteurized milk is processed, and ultra-pasteurized (UHT) milk is highly-processed; however, the comparison between the two milks is like night and day. Pasteurized milk is heated to 212oF (100oC) until the harmful bacteria and enzymes, the pathogens, are killed. The milk is chilled and ready for consumption. Due to the application of minor heat, there are only minor changes to the nutritional quality.

Ultra-pasteurized milk is sterile milk. The milk is heated beyond boiling to 275oF (135oC) and has a burnt taste. Chemicals, including msg, are added to give the milk flavor and to mask the burnt taste. Vitamins and minerals must be added to the product as well to reproduce nutritional benefits that were destroyed by the major heat. Packaged in sterile containers, UHT milk has a typical unrefrigerated shelf life of six to nine months. All the ultra-pasteurized dairy products go through the same thorough process.

The lack of definitions of mildly processed, processed, and highly-processed is exploited by the food industry. Food producers are legally allowed to market their products as they wish, and the FDA boundaries are few. Companies trot out food scientists who will go on the record saying without a definition of processed food, no one can determine when a food is processed beyond its original state. After all, eggplant must be cooked in order to be edible. From a specific legal standing, manufacturers of highly-processed food products can claim that their foods are healthy. In every other reasonable context, the claim is ambiguous.

This ambiguity is what the meatless meat companies exploit as well. Yes, the meatless meat is processed, but so is milk and eggplant. Who is to say what product is highly-processed? Besides, the FDA approved the food product for human consumption, which means the food cannot hurt you.

Except, long term food studies on ingredient safety do not exist and even if someone were willing to pay for such a study, how would the researcher compensate for the variables of the other 20,000 different botanical and animal foods humans consume. Such data is impossible to collect and even if it were, what human would want to be constrained to such a limited diet for years? The safety testing is limited and instead of adding caution because of the limits, food companies fill the vacuum with positive marketing campaigns.

All the debate over what is processed food deliberately ignores one inescapable element of food. Vitamins and minerals in our fruits and vegetables do not present as discreet components of food. The essential elements for human health are integrated into other components, other chemicals, which help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals in our gut. These other chemicals help with digestion, providing bridges and catalysts that promote absorption. The publication of added fortified vitamins and minerals are listed on the side of the cereal box, does not confirm that the body absorbs any of them by consuming the food product in the box. The more processing, the less likelihood of absorption takes place, because most of the helpful bridge and catalyst chemicals are not present.

Whether these meatless products are healthy for you is still subject to confirmation. They are healthier in one area, no animal fat. Beef is more than fat though, giving us the essential nutrients from the muscle tissue. The more processed a product is, the more “empty calories” devoid of essential nutrients we consume. While the human digestive system digests beef efficiently, the gastrointestinal tract tends to react to artificial ingredients, creating side effects such as gastric distress. The FDA can confirm the food product will not kill you on a short-term basis, but agency’s confirmation does not verify that the product is good for you.

In the end, the consumer is left to decide with a paucity of evidence whether or not to eat highly-processed food products. While the food industry can spin the lack of evidence as a “not bad thing,” the long-term health of your physical body is what is at stake. No one knows the outcome of those stakes.

The second arena, climate change and the environment, is easier to parse as a benefit.

Cattle and their beef on one side and the environment and climate change on the other conflict in surprising ways. The raising of cattle from birth to the slaughterhouse and onto the wrapped packages in your grocery bag accounts for 25 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States every year. Huge swathes of land are necessary to raise cattle to adulthood and these lands are not used sustainably because of the monoculture ranching business model. Large herds of cattle degrade the soil and the flora because the other natural systems that would complement bovine herds are gone. The contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from cows is far more than the intestinal gases emitted from both ends of the cow, although bovine methane is a recognized contributor. The feedlots at the end of a cow’s life are another ethical and environmental travesty with huge environmental consequences.

The pursuit of healthier beef for human consumption has a larger impact on the environment than the standard ranching models. Standard models allocate three acres per cow while grass fed cows require nine acres per cow. Three times as much land is required to raise a healthier-for-consumption cow, which hastens degradation of the land and quickens deforestation.

Reducing the amount of beef in the human diet is the non-negotiable requirement in addressing climate change. Those societies that eat large quantities of beef will be forced to cut back their consumption, some to zero. The present model is unsustainable, and as the droughts spread across the land and deepen, cattle ranching will become untenable. One way or the other, the falling consumption of beef is coming. Most people would prefer the voluntary cessation of beef without environmental devastation than the climate-induced model, one would think.

Into this great shift in diet from beef to more sustainable foods, wades the meatless meat products. Their argument is that they can give beef eaters what they crave without the actual beef, and the world is saved. While everyone welcomes the reduction in carbon, the argument overreaches.

First, we are not going to save the world through fast food franchises or through frozen meatless meat patty bundles in the freezer section of the grocery store. The absurdity of the positive impact of the food product is undeniable. Perhaps these burgers can be a small part of the solution, but they will not be the solution.

Second, highly-processed infers many steps from the point of bringing in the raw materials to transforming the ingredients into the food product. These products are complicated and the production process is complex. Quantities of energy are burned to create these burgers at scale, and that is carbon producing. Limit the manufacturing to a few regional plants and the carbon price of transporting by truck or rail go up exponentially.

Third, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are soy products. Soy farming is a mono-culture farm product, meaning the soil is degraded and becomes unusable unless large quantities of artificial fertilizer are added. Corporate model farming produces far more carbon than the dynamic, multiple-culture farms where different crops rotate and complement each other, one crop taking nitrogen out of the soil and another locking nitrogen into the soil.

Further, all soy grown in the United States is GMO. The closest producer of non-GMO soybeans is Brazil, and the carbon cost of shipping between continents is astronomical. Shipping is, far and away, the most polluting form of transportation on the planet. GMO in the case of soybeans refers to soy plants that are immune to glyphosate (RoundupTM). The entire field of nearly ripe soybeans are sprayed with glyphosate. When the plants turn brown and dry out from the chemical, the field is harvested, giving the farmer a higher yield per acre. Meanwhile, glyphosate has been definitively linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by science and the link has been upheld in court.

The meat eaters of the world will have to change their diet, or the planet will change their diet for them. Technology will not save us or our burgers. Only by changing our habits and making carbon-conscious choices will we save the planet.

These meatless meats are high-tech vegetable patties. Strip away all the hype and hyperbole, and what is left is one set of tradeoffs for another set. Try a meatless burger and if the product is tasty, enjoy the experience. However, much deeper and complex changes are necessary if we are to save our planet from climate change.

By Glenn Jacob

Rabbi, Community Leader, Fundraiser, Board Development, Non-profit management, strategic planning, educator, writer, and editor.

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