What do you call soy, corn, and other vegetable components that have been heavily seasoned and processed into nearly inedible discs to be cooked later? It goes by many names — fake meat, plant-based meat — but consumers really ought to view it as the new mystery meat.
Plant-based burgers are supposed to be the biggest restaurant trend in 2018. One product, the Impossible Burger, is now sold in 1,000 establishments nationwide.
But what is actually in them? Plant-protein burgers don’t grow on trees. And corn doesn’t naturally taste like beef. (Sadly.) To turn plants into what looks like and kind of tastes like a real burger requires a lot of chemical processing.
The laboratory making the Impossible Burger looks better suited for big pharma than your neighborhood butcher. Metal drums churn a frothy red liquid, which contains yeast that’s genetically modified to produce vast quantities of the meat-flavor mimic, soy leghemoglobin.
When Impossible Foods attempted to get confirmation that soy leghemoglobin is safe for human consumption in 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised concerns that the engineered protein might cause allergic reactions in people. To date, the FDA still hasn’t approved soy leghemoglobin as safe for human consumption.
And that’s not all. To mimic the texture of ground beef, the makers of the Impossible Burger turned to textured wheat protein and soy protein isolate, two heavily processed ingredients that should churn your stomach faster than a vat of modified yeast.
To isolate vegetable proteins, oil is removed by bathing beans or other plant parts in hexane, a byproduct of refining gasoline. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control classifies hexane as a neurotoxin, and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a hazardous air pollutant. Unlike the European Union, the FDA hasn’t established a maximum allowable amount of hexane residue in food products, except in spices and hops. As such, the FDA doesn’t monitor processed food for the presence of hexane. That means your “clean” veggie burger could come with a side of petroleum byproducts without you even knowing about it.
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On another front, “clean” meat has been getting a lot of press coverage as another replacement for the traditional hamburger. Scientists have taken tissue samples from living animals and then spent millions replicating certain cells in a lab. The first burger cost north of $300,000, but the price has dropped significantly in the past few years. Though it’s still more expensive than the natural alternative, one company expects to have product in supermarkets this year.
But the reality is once again much different from the marketing. The meat is labeled “clean,” which consumers may interpret as lacking additives. “Clean meat does not require antibiotics or hormones,” say proponents.
Except that it does. The muscle tissue that’s been cultivated is bathed in serum (either embryonic or an artificial alternative) that contains a litany of hormones to foster cell growth. This process takes time, like raising an animal.
And currently, antibiotics are used. Lab-grown meat is still living cells, which are susceptible to attack from microorganisms. Antibiotics are needed to ensure the cells don’t fall prey to bacteria.
Moreover, the same technology that’s gone into developing genetically modified crops likely will have to be incorporated at some point in order to make a product that looks like real meat. Gene silencing, splicing and other technologies might end up limiting antibiotic usage, for example. Ironically, the same environmental activists who have stigmatized GMOs for years are now seeing lab-grown meat as a helpful tool for their cause.
Does the use of antibiotics or genetic technology mean lab-grown meat is bad? No — just as these tools are used by livestock and crop farmers to raise healthy animals or improved corn.
If makers of these products — let’s call them “alternative meat” — can make something that is safe and affordable, that’s good for everyone. Prices go down and people get what they want. But being transparent is critical for this burgeoning industry. It’s also important that government regulators and the public at large know what’s going on these labs so they can make informed choices about their food.