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As ‘meat replacements’ grow more popular, experts express skepticism, uncertainty

Uncertain ingredients, "ultraprocessed" foods leave unanswered questions.

Updated: July 10, 2021 - 10:43pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

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The growing popularity of "meat replacements" in the U.S. food economy is tempered in part by the uncertain long-term health and ecological effects that those products may engender, according to experts.

Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made waves for crafting "plant-based" foods to closely resemble meat, including the "Impossible Burger" and various other permutations of mock meat products. 

This week, Beyond Meat announced a new line of plant-based "chicken tenders" debuting at numerous restaurant chains across the country. The product is "crafted to look, cook and taste like traditional animal-based chicken tenders," the company said, but it is an entirely "plant-based innovation" with a significantly different nutritional profile from meat. 

Such products are designed to address the purported negative effects that meat has on both personal health and the environment, as well as serve as a meat substitute for vegetarians and vegans. But their relative novelty — and their often lengthy list of processed ingredients — means that both their health and ecological effects are at present poorly understood. 

Asked about those factors, Danielle Nierenberg said, "I think it depends." 

Nierenberg, cofounder and president of the food-based think tank Food Tank as well as the founder of the Watchworld Institute's sustainable food program Nourishing the Planet, said that different mock meat companies have different approaches to manufacturing their products.  

"If you're talking about Beyond Meat, they're using pea protein [and] brown rice," among other things, she said. "Impossible Burger is using some more controversial ingredients, including GMO soy. So for folks who are trying to get away from the typical soy burger, that creates some controversy." 

Both companies use coconut oil in their meats, "which so many people think is healthier," she added. "Which in some ways it is. But you can't overuse it. The coloring they use is from actual vegetables. I think there's a lot to be said for it."

"I think what bothers me about any ultraprocessed foods — and let's be frank, these are ultraprocessed foods, there are lots of ingredients, they take a lot of machine manufacturing to get into our refrigerators and freezers — they're not simple foods like what you're getting at a farmer's market or like a truly plant-based burger like lentils or black beans." 

"I think what concerns a lot of us in this space is, we want sort of more transparency and traceability in our food supply," she said. 

Marion Nestle, a longtime food and public health advocate and for years a nutrition professor at institutions such as the University of California and New York University, said that there is not yet a "general expert opinion" on the matter.  

Nestle pointed to two recent studies, one from 2020 and one from this year, that came to different conclusions about meat replacements. The study from last year found that those who consumed "plant-based alternative meat" exhibited improvements in "several cardiovascular disease risk factors" while experiencing "no adverse effects on risk factors." 

This year's study, meanwhile, determined that while meat and plant-based products "could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients," they "should not be viewed as truly nutritionally interchangeable." Ultimately, "it cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume," the researchers said. 

Nestle noted that the favorable study was funded by Beyond Meat itself. "There are two sides to this one, without enough evidence yet to resolve the issues," she said. 

The ultimate success or failure of meat replacements, she said, will depend upon "what [the] goal is."

"If your goal is to reduce meat consumption, [meat replacements] are going to be very useful for that, because people who are eating these won't be eating meat," she said. "The major market for them is alternatives for meat eaters. They figure they've got the vegan community sewed up, so if they're going to remain financially viable, they have to expand their market share. And they're doing that by going to places where meat-eaters go through, and presenting an alternative."

The companies have "done a pretty good job on taste," she said. "Are they healthier? It depends. Nutritional health is complicated by how much people are eating. These are what are called 'ultraprocessed food products,' before which a great deal of evidence demonstrates that people take in more calories if they eat these foods."

"It's going to be very hard to sort this out," she added.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods has expanded its flagship product into several chains, including Burger King and Red Robin, in an effort to expand its market share amid the rising popularity of meat substitutes. 

A recent review in the Houston Chronicle of Burger King's Impossible Burger claimed the plant product "functioned adequately as a placeholder" in what the reviewer described as "less a 'burger' than 'a burgerlike experience.'"

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