CEO/Head Coach of CTS
People don’t make food choices based on nutrition. The nutrient-density and composition of a food plays a role, but people also choose foods based on cost, ethics, politics, purity, allergies and intolerances (real or perceived), and environmental concerns. Plant-based meat is one of the newest foods to throw into the mix. So, should you eat it?
What it is
Plant-based meat is protein constructed from ingredients derived from plants, and designed specifically to have the taste, texture, color, mouth feel, and aroma we recognize from meat cut from an animal. Available products from two of the leaders in this emerging industry, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are slightly different but truly remarkable.
Impossible Foods constructs their product from textured wheat protein and potato protein. The wheat protein provides chewiness, and the potato protein holds moisture and helps the product firm up as it cooks, like beef does. To give the product the fattiness we associate with beef (similar to 85/15% beef, in this case), they use distinct flecks of solid coconut oil, which liquefies as you cook it. The revolutionary ingredient, according to Impossible Foods, is heme.
If heme sounds familiar, that’s because it’s found in hemoglobin, a key oxygen-binding component of blood and muscle. It turns out, heme also contributes significantly to the tastes and smells we associate with meat. Heme exists in some plant proteins, including leghemoglobin found in the roots of soybean plants. The trick was figuring out how to produce a lot of it, because the roots of soybean plants produce a fraction of the heme found in animals. Impossible Food’s solution was to genetically modify yeast by inserting the DNA responsible for producing leghemoglobin in soybean plants. The yeast then grow and replicate quickly, using far fewer resources, and taking up far less space than fields of soybeans.
Beyond Meat took a different approach to constructing meat. They started with isolated pea protein, canola oil, and coconut oil. By figuring out the right combination of temperature, time, and pressure, Beyond Meat scientists figured out how to turn powdery pea protein into the protein fibers that give meat its texture, firmness, and ability to hold together as a burger.
Make no mistake; both companies are using a ton of chemistry, technology, and processing to construct meat. Leaving aside how successfully the products look, taste, feel, and cook like meat (more on that later from Chef Jeff Mahin), the process of creating these products raises its own questions.
Why bother with Plant-Based Meat?
Is plant-based meat worth the trouble? In many ways, yes. According to Rowan Jacobson, author of American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, it takes 36,000 calories of energy to produce 1000 calories of beef. Producing those 36,000 calories requires a lot of acreage and water, plus all the energy, chemicals, and vehicles necessary for farming the plants cattle consume. All of this makes raising cattle a tremendously inefficient way to obtain protein for human consumption. To make matters worse, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects demand for meat will rise dramatically in the next 30 years, and ranchers in many countries are clear-cutting huge swaths of forest to make land suitable for farming and/or grazing. This leads to loss of habitat for wildlife, putting already threatened animals at greater risk of extinction. Oh, and don’t forget, those trees consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen; deforestation is cited as a contributing factor in man-made climate change.
Even if you could solve the environmental problems associated with raising animals for food, a growing number of people have ethical problems with the treatment of animals as they are being raised and slaughtered to put meat on your table. Many people turn to vegetarianism or veganism for ethical reasons. Others reduce or eliminate meat from their lifestyles to reduce intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, although the scientific and medical communities now believe red meat is less of a contributing factor to heart disease than they used to.
Regardless of your individual feelings on the issues above, the undeniable fact is changes in attitudes have created a viable market opportunity for plant-based proteins, including plant-based meat. According to FoodNavigator, sales of meat alternatives increased 6% in 2017 to $554M, whereas sales of tofu and tempeh only increased 2.6% to $98M.
But, Why Meat At All?
One of the persistent problems I’ve had with making plants look, smell, feel, and taste like animals is that I like the taste of vegetables. Some of the best veggie burgers I’ve eaten were incredible because of the ingredients and flavors combined to make them, not because they most-effectively replicated the taste of a beef hamburger. Anecdotally, most of the vegetarians and vegans I know and work with – no matter their rationale for being vegetarian or vegan – don’t crave meat or feel they are missing out on anything by not eating it. So again, why meat?
Meat tastes really good. Humans have been eating and creating recipes with meat for millennia. If we want to reduce meat consumption, for whatever combination of ecological, ethical, and health reasons, it won’t happen by convincing humanity to love and crave vegetables. Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, told PBS in December 2017, “The realistic goal is not to destroy the meat industry. People are going to continue to eat meat. It’s to shrink it. It’s to bring it back to a scale where we can raise cattle without destroying the environment.” People love meat, but scientists and marketers are hoping they don’t care as much about whether their meat started out as an animal.
Looking at the nutritional labels for Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products it’s impossible to ignore the irony of seeking to replace a whole food (beef) with a food so highly processed you would never guess the ingredients on the label add up to meat. Similarly, if you have a problem with genetically modified food, you probably won’t be too excited to consume heme produced by injecting soybean DNA into yeast.
But I digress. From the standpoint of nutrient density and composition, current products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods do a pretty good job of reproducing the nutrient profile of beef. The table below compares 3-ounce servings.
|Saturated Fat (g)
|Ground beef 85/15
|Beyond Meat Burger
|Impossible Foods Burger
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A few things stand out. The plant-based meat products have twice the amount of saturated fat, stemming from the use of coconut oil, but no cholesterol because cholesterol is found primarily in animal products. The plant-based burgers have about 20% more protein per serving. From a micronutrient standpoint, they are all similar, but that would be expected because – as with fortified cereals – you can customize the micronutrient content of processed foods.
Cooking Plant-Based Meat
There are several in-depth reviews and comparisons of the tastes, textures, smells, and response to cooking. That’s not really my forte, so I asked Chef Jeff Mahin to provide his input. Jeff is a CTS Athlete and the creative force behind Stella Barra Pizzeria (Santa Monica, Hollywood, Chicago, Bethesda), Summer House Santa Monica (Chicago, Bethesda), Do-Rite Donuts (Chicago), and M Street Kitchen (Santa Monica).
From Chef Mahin:
I’d like to focus specifically in the Impossible Burger plant-based meat, as I feel that it is far beyond any others with regards to taste, texture and cook-ability.
The Impossible burger company has created a plant-based burger patty – that can also be used as steak tartar and or ground taco meat – that cooks, acts, tastes and resemble ground beef. You are able to cook the raw mix to a medium rare – the outside turns brown like meat, while the inside stays red and pink like a medium rare burger. This opens up so many doors for me as a chef, from simply making a burger to Bolognese, taco meat, steak tartar and so on. I would argue that because the plant-based protein mimics to red meat so closely, it may actually appeal to some meat free eaters. It’s that close.
Before I go further I’d like to say I love red meat. I am, and most likely will always be, a meat eater. I believe there are a lot of health benefits with both fatty fish and grass-fed red meat. In my eyes, the Impossible Burger and similar products are not exactly there to satisfy vegans and vegetarians. While they do allow both vegans and vegetarians a new and nutrient-dense meal, the bigger picture is the broader appeal. This plant-based option does not leave me dissatisfied or craving red meat; it’s a new and great product that can be enjoyed equally by vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters.
Speaking again to the Impossible Burger, you can handle it 90% the same way you would a ground beef patty. I have found the best application for a burger is a cast iron pan of griddle top – I would not recommend grilling. Just like meat, you have to be careful of not over cooking the patty. If you cook it too much it does get a bit crispy on the outsides. As for taco meat – instead of browning the meat ahead of time, I have found it best to make the mix and then add the Impossible Burger at the end – to not over cook it. Another great application is using the product raw – think steak tartar. I love mixing some capers, Dijon mustard, aioli and salt and pepper into the mix and mash it around with a fork. Season with sea salt and black pepper and it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference.
Jeff Mahin’s Plant-Based Chili Con Carne Molida
A burger is the typical application for Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods’ patties, but you can also break them up and use them as a ground beef substitute in other dishes, including this great Chili Con Carne Molida recipe.
4 Tbls oil
100 g diced yellow onion
10 g minced garlic
1 lbs Impossible burger
20 g taco seasoning
100 g charred tomato salsa
10 g chipotle pepper puree
8 g salt
- Heat the oil in a large rondeau (shallow pan)
- Add the onion and garlic and saute till soft
- Add taco spice and stir 3 minutes
- Add charred tomato salsa and chipotle puree, bring to a simmer and cook 10 minutes
- Add Impossible burger and break up. Saute till browning
- Add salt and taste
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