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Taking the beef out of burgers

Copyright The Week and New York Times

It has been a banner year for a previously niche market: alternative meats

Is it just a passing fad?
No, it’s a global trend. In America this year, plant-based chicken nuggets and other meat alternatives made by the market leaders, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have appeared on menus in fast food chains such as McDonalds, KFC, and Little Caesars; Burger King has rolled out its soya-based Impossible Whopper nationally. In Britain, Greggs’ vegan Quorn sausage roll, launched in January, has been a runaway success. Burger King’s meat-free Rebel Whopper is already on sale in Europe, and coming to the UK soon. McDonald’s PLT (plant, lettuce and tomato) burger will follow. Meatless burgers have recently gone on sale in all Wetherspoon pubs. And Britain’s supermarkets now offer a rich array of faux meats: vegan ham, plant-based meatballs, soya protein fish fillets, tofu chorizo, seaweed bacon. The research firm Jefferies says alternative meat could account for 9% of the global meat market by 2040.

Where did these fake meats come from?
“Meat analogues”, as food scientists call them, are as old as the hills. Tofu, made from pressed soya curds, dates back two thousand years. Like seitan, which is made from wheat gluten, it was designed to provide protein and a chewy, meat-like eating experience for vegetarian Buddhists. In Medieval Europe, meat substitutes, such as “mincemeat” made from chopped almonds with grapes, were eaten during Lent. In the early 20th century, Kellogg’s sold cans of Protose, a mixture of peanuts and gluten designed to resemble potted chicken or veal. The 1980s saw the invention of Quorn, a protein made from a single-cell fungus. Veggie burgers have been around for decades. But today’s meat substitutes are different because they are uncannily realistic. They cater for vegans and “flexitarians” who are worried about animal welfare, their own health and the environmental effects of meat-eating, but still want the taste and “mouthfeel” of meat.

What are they made of?
They are largely made of plant proteins – mostly soya, sometimes pea, bean or wheat – and plant fats. Like breakfast cereals, these are cooked in big pressure cookers, known as extruders, which use low heat and compression to replicate the fibrous texture of meat. The first challenge in creating a plant-based burger is to make a tasteless patty, getting rid of all “off-flavours”: pea protein is sometimes said to taste of urine. Then, all sorts of wizardry is used to replicate the meaty taste. The Impossible Burger’s magic ingredient is heme, the iron-carrying molecule found in blood and some plant roots. It’s heme, produced in tanks of yeast genetically modified with soya DNA, that makes the burger “remain pink in the middle as it cooks”, reports The New Yorker, and synthesises the “yeasty, bloody, savoury flavour” of beef. In tests, half of customers can’t tell it apart from a beefburger.

What if I don’t want to eat heme?
Impossible Foods’ burger is not yet approved for sale in the EU because it contains genetically modified ingredients. Its rival, Beyond Meat, markets itself as the “natural” alternative, and doesn’t use GM organisms. However, its burgers are not exactly plain and pure. They are made from a mixture of “pea protein isolate”, mung bean and rice proteins, enriched with coconut oil and cocoa butter. The “bleeding” effect is achieved by using beetroot juice. The thickener methylcellulose, the emulsifier lecithin and the salt substitute potassium chloride are also used. European food giants, such as Unilever and Nestlé, have created their own versions and are fast expanding their plant-based meat options.

So are these foods heavily processed?
The irony is that though plant-based burgers are marketed as a natural, healthy alternative, they ape highly processed foods, such as frankfurters and chicken nuggets, which have long used soya protein as “meat extenders”, and wheat fibres for texture. They offend against the modern notion that foods should be “whole”, and the food writer Michael Pollan’s influential advice that you should never eat anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce, or anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. As for the physical effects, there is plenty of evidence that eating a lot of meat is bad for our health. However, plant-based burgers tend to be more salty than meat burgers, and the general consensus is that they don’t offer great relative health benefits.

But what about the environmental benefits?
These are unarguable (see box). According to a recent University of Michigan study, a plant-based burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has 99% less impact on water scarcity, and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of traditional US beef.

How about lab-grown meat?
Hopes are high for cultured meat, grown in vitro from animal cells, but the industry is still in its infancy and no products have yet reached consumers. The first cultured beef burger patty was produced by the University of Maastricht in 2013, and cost $330,000 to make. Costs are still high today: a chicken nugget produced by the US pioneer Just, Inc costs $50; and salmon produced by Wild Type costs some $4,000 per pound. The serum used to culture cells is still prohibitively expensive, and cell growth is slow. However, the technology does hold great promise for the future. Unlike plant-based alternatives, it could produce not just ground meat substitutes, but full cuts of real meat, “slaughter-free”, at a fraction of the environmental cost. The management consultant A.T. Kearney predicts that by 2040, 25% of meat will be plant-based, and 35% of it will be cultured.

The environmental impact of livestock

There are many different ways of producing meat, which have quite different environmental impacts: Welsh hill farmers resent being lumped in with slash-and-burn ranchers in the Amazon. But the overall picture is clear. Livestock farming, most of all cattle farming, has a massive footprint in terms of land use, crop consumption, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution. The biggest analysis of the subject to date, published in Science last year, found that avoiding meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on Earth. Meat and dairy farming provide just 18% of humans’ calories, but use more than 80% of the world’s farmland. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland could be reduced by more than 75%. It is often claimed that grass-fed beef, using land that isn’t suitable for cropping, isn’t particularly damaging – but this ignores the methane emissions belched out by cows’ digestive systems. Even the lowest-impact beef produces six times the greenhouse emissions of the equivalent plant protein.

Since the early 1960s, global meat production has grown by more than 400%. By 2050, demand for meat is expected to double again as the world population grows to nearly ten billion. Continuing on the world’s current trajectory will entail climate disaster, according to a study by the World Resources Institute. It recommends that heavy meat consumers reduce their intake by 40%.

THE WEEK
23 November 2019

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