Plant-based meat is no longer a novelty, it’s available pretty much everywhere and the market is growing.
Whether for health, ethical or environmental reasons, meat eaters have also joined vegan or vegetarians in this new consumption trend.
I want to keep an open mind about fake meat products, but before considering occasionally adding them to my diet, I’d like to understand the ingredients, processing methods and whether it’s beneficial for our health. Many of you are probably also weighing health cost-benefits of these products.
There is a lot of fragmented information mixed with a lot of emotional judgements around fake meat foods.
So, I decided to analyse and aggregate nutritional value information for some brands available in Europe.
Sounds simple, but it turned out not to be an easy exercise.
To make it visually comprehensive, I created a table with 4 products and listed all available ingredients.
In red I highlighted those that I find particularly doubtful or potentially harmful. For example, all common products that may trigger allergic or adverse food reactions; unhealthy vegetable oils; newly created ingredients that we know little about.
Essentially, it’s a soy-based product packed with vitamins. A proportion of coconut oil is actually replaced with sunflower oil to reduce saturated fat content. Questionnable choice.
There is nothing particularly wrong with soy for the majority of the population, but it’s a well-known allergen for sensitive people, particularly for children. In addition, soy protein quality seems to be inferior to whey or casein. Moreover, soy has endocrine-disrupting properties, especially for those with thyroid issues. Personally, I prefer to stay away from soy products, unless it’s fermented or its amount is negligible.
But the most controversial ingredient in Impossible Burger is soy leghemoglobin- protein found in legumes. It helps to facilitate oxygen supply to the nitrogen fixing bacteria. This “magic” protein is used by Impossible Burger company to recreate the “umami” flavor profile of animal-derived meat. Unlike heme (iron) found in beef, this plant protein in Impossible Burger is genetically engineered by adding soy protein to genetically engineered yeast.
The primary concerns for food safety are whether this protein itself is allergenic, whether it’s cross-reactive due to similarity to another protein, whether it has toxic effect, or whether gene alteration has an impact on allergy reaction. Unfortunately, the research is poor, and some preliminary reassuring results still do not prove that risks of allergy are non-existing.
This brand has advertised until recently that its product is “mushroom in origin”, however, the fungus from which it is made has little in common with mushrooms. Rather, it’s a mold grown in liquid solution in large tanks. The company patented this ingredient, called Mycoprotein, which represents 38% of their classic burger.
Mycoprotein is the ingredient common to all Quorn products.
It might sound worse than it is in reality but we don’t know much about production conditions in which this mold is grown. All we know from the official communication is that sugar, water, magnesium, phosphate and potassium are added to the fungi to form mycoprotein.
Once the formed substance is removed from the large tanks, it’s heated and then centrifuged to eliminate water. The intermediate product looks like pastry dough. It is then mixed with free range eggs and seasoned to help bind the mixed. And finally, it is steam cooked for about 30 min, chilled and chopped into pieces before being frozen. Apparently freezing is a crucial step in the process, according to Quorn, because the ice crystals help to push the fibres together, giving it meat-like texture. I’m not sure it’s a mouthwatering description.
I was also a bit concerned about class action taken against Quorn in 2017, resulting in mandatory labelling for all Quorn products sold in the U.S. as “Mycoprotein is a mold [member of the fungi family]. There have been rare cases of allergic reactions to products that contain mycoprotein.”
Finally, I’m not keen on palm and rapeseed vegetable oils added to Quorn burgers in addition to all these smoked flavorings.
The company doesn’t mention any organic ingredients on the label. As for allergens, it does contain milk, eggs and gluten, but those are well labeled on the packaging.
On the positive side, the protein in Beyond Meat burger comes from peas, beans and rice, which creates a complete protein. As a reminder, each plant on its own does not have all essential amino acids like animal products, but a good combination of two or more sources of incomplete proteins together create a nutritionally superior product.
Unfortunately, Beyond Meat doesn’t disclose the exact production process but it does offer some info on how their burgers are made.
“We use a simple process of heating, cooling, and pressure to create the fibrous texture of meat and layer in plant-based fats, binders, flavours, and colours.” – not much inside.
There is one particular ingredient in Beyond meat that I’m trying to avoid – emulsifiers. Lecithin is one of them. In general, lecithin is harmless and naturally present in tiny amounts in many products such as eggs, meats, seeds, corn or soy. In the food industry, it is used to stabilise the mixture and prevent different parts of separating. Although emulsifiers are considered to be safe, they are known to have negative effects on gut health, causing abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea and altering gut microbiota.
It’s an American brand selling tofu-based products made of US grown organic soybeans. Burgers is a new product range for this company, so I added it for comparison. Overall, Tofurky products found in our supermarkets typically contain a blend of wheat gluten, soy and corn starch spiced with vegan flavours. Some of them also have rapeseed or canola vegetable oils – not the best oil choice.
They also rank highest for salt content among other plant-based brands.
All allergens are well labelled.
My personal verdict:
Compared to fake meats, grass-fed organic meat doesn’t contain any carbohydrates, artificial flavours or additives, and it has a much higher proportion of proteins for the same weight. Real meat also has K2 vitamin which is absent in fake meats and naturally does not have any disproportionate amounts of vitamins. The bioavailability of meat-heme is also higher to plant-based iron. And I strongly believe that lab-based processed foods can not be nutritionally superior to real foods.
Taking into account all findings, I’m still willing to try plant-based meat products, but my choice is clearer now. I would opt for a product that doesn’t have any GMO, gluten or soy. Although I would be thrilled to try a real mushroom-based burger, I’m very uncomfortable having a product with obscure mold containing ingredients.
Anything that has complex elements such as leghemoglobin is also off my kitchen table, due to unknown long-term health effects.
I’d prefer a recognisable, clean-labelled, minimally processed product which ideally has an organic high-quality protein, but it also has to taste good!
So, at the moment, Beyond Meat seems to be the winner, however, I still have to discover its taste 😉