Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 26, 2020

Ready to give up beef? Is replacement ‘Impossible?’

Anthony Johnson eats an Impossible Whopper, a meatless burger made with a plant-based, protein-filled patty, at Burger King in Nashville. Disruption in the food chain because of the COVID-19 pandemic have some people turning to meatless products. - Photos by Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

For decades, those who were a vegetarian or vegan and craved meat had a few choices like tofu, tempeh, seitan and textured vegetable protein. Anyone for a Tofurky hot dog? Anyone?

Well, this isn’t that. This is “meat” that tastes almost exactly – maybe even precisely – like the real thing.

These new plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken have come to restaurants and stores near you. The producers who make them literally think they’ll change the world.

The big players of the moment in this non-meat revolution are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Consumers can find burgers made from both in an increasing number of restaurants nationwide, including in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

White Castle and Burger King both have Impossible burgers. Dunkin’ Donuts features a Beyond breakfast sausage sandwich and KFC has test marketed a Beyond chicken nugget in its Nashville and Charlotte outlets. The beef and pork versions are available in grocery stores for the home cook.

Worldwide, the plant-based meat market was worth about $12 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow to $21 billion in the next five years, according to market research firm Zion. But will these products ever dominate over the real thing? Beyond and Impossible are banking on it. Follow along.

Who needs the beef?

Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were founded on the belief that plant-based proteins are the future of food. Both companies are dedicated to drastically reducing the harmful effects of factory food farming and, ultimately, to replace it with sustainable plant-based alternatives. Both companies say their products are produced with significantly less land, water and energy than traditional livestock production and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions from livestock account for about 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Cattle represent about 65% of those emissions.

Beyond, in particular, is on the environmental bandwagon. Its mission statement covers four areas of concern: improving human health, positively impacting climate change, addressing global resource restraints and improving animal welfare.

Again, from the Beyond literature: “A peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis conducted by the University of Michigan compared the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger to a ¼ pound U.S. beef burger. The result? A Beyond Burger uses significantly less water, land, energy, and generates fewer Greenhouse Gas Emissions than a beef burger.”

“I began to understand the role livestock plays in climate,” founder Ethan Brown told Time magazine in a recent interview. “It’s not necessarily just the car you drive or the light bulb you screw in. It’s also very much the protein you put in the center of your plate. It dawned on me that if we want to solve climate, we have to solve livestock.”

Dr. Neil Schrick would beg to differ. Schrick is the head of the department of animal science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and has very strong thoughts on the science Beyond and Impossible put forth and completely disagrees that cattle are the bogeymen of the environment.

“In terms of agriculture we account for 9% of the U.S. greenhouse gases, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report in 2016, and 3.9% of that is from animal agriculture and 1.9 is from beef cattle,” Schrick explains. “Electricity is 28%, transportation is 28%, industry is 22%, commercial 6% and residential 5%.

“Saying we’re (the beef industry) causing global warming, I think there are more people than there are cows,” he adds. “You can go with plants but the nutrients that you’d be missing and the amount you would have to eat to meet your daily allowance is just nuts.”

Valerie Bass, the executive director of the Tennessee Beef Industry Council, concurs. “According to research published in the National Academies of Sciences, if every American (and their pets) ate a 100% vegan diet, greenhouse gas emissions would only decline 2.6% and conversely, we would not produce enough foods with essential micronutrients, such as vitamin B-12, to nourish the population,” she says.

Environmental concerns among plant-based burger enthusiasts also may be misplaced, according to beef industry experts. They say cows are actually good for the planet.

“How can you beat one of the biggest recyclers there is and that’s a cow?” Schrick asks. “Cows eat grass and food that you and I can’t eat and converts it to beef. They release methane but so do you and I. And methane can be broken down and recycled. I have a picture of a cow in my mind with a cape and big Super S on it.”

Bass notes that cattle are upcyclers, meaning they transform useless or unwanted products into new materials of more environmental value.

“They have a unique digestive system called a rumen, that allows them to eat grass and plants of little or no nutritional value to humans and convert them into high-quality protein, micronutrients, and many other products like medicines and leather goods,” she explains. “Cattle upcycle 1 pound of forage protein into 1.19 pounds of beef protein. Cattle eat grass and forage for 90% of their lives. Those that are grain-finished are fed a nutritionally balanced ration during the last few months. “

As to animal welfare concerns, Schrick points out that should a farmer bring a sick or injured animal to market, that animal would be rejected because of stringent meat inspection safeguards. So all the money spent on raising the animal would be wasted, and that’s just bad for business.

And Bass adds that 85% of beef comes from Beef Quality Assurance-certified farmers and ranchers.

“The Beef Quality Assurance program is a widely adopted set of animal welfare standards across the beef industry, leading to safe, high-quality beef,” she notes. “Cattlemen and women care about the cattle they raise for consumers and their own families.”

A few words about health

Both Beyond and Impossible have similar ingredients with one key exception. Impossible incorporates soy leghemoglobin, or heme for short. That’s what makes the burger “bleed.” The Beyond is made with pea protein instead of soy and the company adds beet extract to make the meat red.

If you assume that both plant-based burgers are healthier than a beef burger you’d be wrong. They both have their virtues and vices.

Both Beyond and Impossible burgers are highly processed. Yes, they’re plant based but eating either of these burgers is not equal to a bowl of steamed broccoli.

Nutritionally, the Beyond burger has more protein, fewer carbohydrates and less saturated fat than an Impossible burger. When compared to traditional ground beef, both brands have more carbohydrates, less protein and much more sodium. Nutritionists point out that the research is scarce thus far on whether the plant-based burgers are a better option than actual meat.

A beef patty is, well, just beef. Its fat content varies according to the blend. A blend of 80/20 ground beef contains 80% lean beef and 20% fat. Go 90/10 and you have a healthier burger. And no additives. It is what it is.

“When it comes to ground beef and newer meat substitutes, it’s good to know the facts,” Bass says. “Based on the nutrition facts, 93% lean ground beef is lower in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium and higher in quality protein than meat substitutes.

“Beef is a natural source of high-quality protein and 10 essential nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins that are essential to good health.’’ The ingredient label for 93% lean ground beef reads, beef. The ingredient label for a soy-based burger lists about 21 ingredients and a pea-based burger lists about 17 ingredients. The sodium listed for 4 ounces of 93% lean ground beef is 75 milligrams and for a 4-ounce soy-based burger it’s 370 milligrams.”

And consumers are concerned about ingredients. A recent Bank of America survey, based on opinions of 1,400 people, found that 56% of respondents felt that the ingredient list of these products is the most important factor when making a buying decision.

Who’s the customer?

Vegetarians and vegans alone will never take over a meat-based planet. Just in the United States, only 5% of adults consider themselves to be vegetarian, a 2018 Gallup Poll finds. Even fewer are vegan, 0.4% according to a Harris Poll.

The group some of the meat substitute crowd are banking on is flexitarians, people who eat meat but are trying to cut down on consuming it. Ninety-five percent of those who bought a plant-based burger also bought a beef burger within the last year, according to data from the market research firm, NPD Group.

So what’s the verdict among those who’ve tried a Beyond or Impossible burger? Depends on who you ask. Sharmila Patel has been a dedicated vegetarian for decades and rushed to a Burger King to try the Impossible burger.

“I was obsessed with the Impossible Whopper when it first came out,” she says. “Last fall was the first time in over a decade that I had been to a Burger King. I still enjoy them occasionally, but they are still fast food and high in calories.”

Other vegetarians and vegans aren’t so sure. The plant-based burgers, to them, taste too much like actual beef.

“When I had the Impossible burger, I felt uncomfortable because it was so close to the taste of actual meat in texture and it “bled” like normal meat,” says vegetarian Katie Duiven. “I felt like I was eating meat and I didn’t like that because I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t like meat and doesn’t miss meat.”

Vegan Sarah Marriott agreed. “The texture and the flavor reminded me so much of meat it wasn’t appetizing at all,” she adds.

But confirmed meat eater Margaret Brown found her plant-based burger very appetizing. “I tried the Impossible Whopper and if I hadn’t known it wasn’t beef I wouldn’t have known.”

Schrick figured he should keep his enemies close and gave the Impossible Burger a shot. “It tasted like a sponge with some meat flavoring in it,” he points out. “I ate about half of it, if that, and was done.”