Meat gets a makeover

A writer walks into a burger joint with a mission: to sample the burger options— whether made from plants or animals.

Why ? The offerings have recently become more plentiful, interesting, and confusing now that companies—in particular Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—have started selling high-tech plant-based patties.

Designed to have the look and feel of meat, these new-generation veggie burgers are targeted to people looking to reduce their beef consumption and swap in, they hope, nutritious meatlike meals that take less toll on the environment than factory farming, don’t harm animals, and still taste good.

Also on the horizon—but not yet on the menu—are lab-grown meats and fish. These are foods made by taking cells from animals and multiplying them into fleshy, edible muscle tissue in a bioreactor rather than raising animals on farms to slaughter.

In other words, “meat” as we know it is getting a makeover. And to fully understand the new offerings, I had to see, smell, feel, and, of course, taste them myself.

So a few colleagues and I headed to a Bareburger, a chain that specializes in organic and vegetarian food, and ordered a beef burger and three plant-based ones: a Beyond patty, an Impossible patty, and a bean-and-veggie patty.

I found the Beyond and Impossible burgers to be surprisingly meatlike.

But even meatier was the discussion about how these alternatives might impact the marketplace, our health, the environment, and the future of food. Are the new options harbingers of a food revolution that will feed the world without animal cruelty or environmental harm? Or will they unleash unforeseen health risks and disruptions to our ecosystem? Or something in between?

Finding answers to those and other questions isn’t easy, partly because there’s not yet much research on some of the products. CR’s food safety experts, in fact, caution that some companies may be moving faster than the research warrants.

Still, people are intrigued. Though plant-based “meat” accounts for less than 1 percent of retail meat sales, the market for the products grew 13 percent last year, with 15 million U.S. households purchasing them at least once, according to the Good Food Institute, an organization that promotes plant- and lab-grown foods.

Other evidence of growing consumer interest: Impossible Foods says popular demand led to temporary shortages of its burgers in restaurants over the summer. And Beyond Meat’s initial public offering last May was wildly successful, with its stock quickly trading about 600 percent above its initial price.

Perhaps seeing the opportunities, Tyson, a major producer of chicken, beef, and pork, says it plans to launch its own plant-based nuggets and “blended” burgers, made with plant proteins and meat. The company has also invested in lab-grown-meat companies, such as Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies.

But many consumers are unclear on what these foods are. And 40 per­cent of Americans don’t think that food produced in a lab to look and taste like meat should even be called meat, according to a recent nationally representative CR survey of 1,018 adults. Also, more people think “lab-grown” or “synthetic” better describes the meat than the terms the industry favors: “cultured” or “clean.”

To clear up the confusion, we talked to nutritionists, agriculture experts, and company scientists cooking up these creations.

Beyond Burger

What Is It?

The Beyond Burger is an all-plant, gluten-free patty with protein from peas, mung beans, and rice, plus beet and pomegranate to provide meatlike redness. It gets its fat from canola oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter; those last two ingredients also give the product its marbled look, the company says. Further, the burger, made by Beyond Meat, has no genetically modified organisms. The company also makes other plant-based “meats,” such as a sausage and “crumbles” (think ground beef).

Is It Healthier Than Beef?

Not necessarily. It does have zero dietary cholesterol—though that has less effect on the cholesterol levels in your blood than does saturated fat. And on that more important measure, as well as for total fat and calories, a Beyond Burger and a typical 80 percent lean beef burger are similar. The Beyond Burger has much more sodium, too. Plus, “while its starting materials may be plants, the main ingredients are all highly processed concentrates, oils, and flavors,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR nutritionist and taste tester. Research links such foods to obesity and heart disease. “If you want the health benefits of plants, eat them as whole foods with their nutrients and fiber naturally present.”

Is It Better for the Environment?

Probably, but how much is debatable. Replacing meat raised in feedlots with plant-based foods is a win for the environment, says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior food policy analyst at CR. That’s in part because cows release methane, a greenhouse gas. And industrial beef production creates runoff that contaminates water. Feedlot farming also tends to sicken cows, contributing to the overuse of antibiotics, which breeds superbugs and undermines the effectiveness of those lifesaving medications.

An analysis commissioned by Beyond Meat concluded that one of its burgers generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases and requires 46 percent less nonrenewable energy than a comparable feedlot-raised beef burger. “Those are reliable estimates,” says Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, Ph.D., at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, who has conducted similar research but was not involved in this analysis.

But “switching to grass-fed animals can also be beneficial,” Vallaeys says. One farm that raises such animals, White Oaks Pastures, in Bluffton, Ga., commissioned the same kind of analysis (PDF) as Beyond Meat. It concluded that White Oaks’ methods may have a net positive effect on the climate by taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil. But note that these analyses involve controversial assumptions and require additional study.

Where Can You Buy It?

Restaurants and grocery stores, often in the meat counter.

How Much Does It Cost?

Two ¼-pound patties at the grocery store costs about $6 to $7, or $12 to $14 a pound, compared with about $4 a pound for regular ground beef and $6 for organic. Restaurant prices vary by location and toppings. We paid about $14 for our Beyond Burger at Bareburger.

Impossible Burger

What Is It?

This all-plant, gluten-free burger gets its protein from soy and its fat from a mix of coconut and sunflower oils. But what makes the burger unique, and controversial, is something called soy leghemoglobin.

The compound, which comes from the root of soybean plants, is chemically similar to the heme iron found in meat. Putting it in a veggie burger gives the patty some of the taste, texture, and juicy, bloody look of beef.

Why controversial? For one, though humans have eaten soy for centuries, we haven’t eaten soy leghemoglobin before. And CR’s scientists advise caution when introducing anything new into the food supply.

Further, manufacturing the compound to scale requires some fancy genetic lab work. Company scientists insert soy leghemoglobin genes into a genetically engineered yeast called Pichia pastoris, then let it ferment. The process produces large quantities of the compound, along with dozens of other proteins.

To document the safety of this new protein, Impossible Foods points to research showing similarities between soy leghemoglobin and other substances humans have long consumed. In addition, company scientists fed it to rats for 28 days and compared them with other rats on a normal diet. “All the studies we did indicated that there was no risk of allergenicity or toxicity,” says Sue Klapholz, M.D., vice president of nutrition and health at Impossible Foods.

But thanks to the oddities of the U.S. food safety system, it’s up to the company, not the Food and Drug Administration, to prove the compound’s safety. Though the FDA did review research provided by Impossible Foods—and said it had no questions about the company’s assessment—the FDA has not conducted any independent tests to confirm the compound’s safety, nor does it have to.

Still, some experts have concerns. Dana Perls, of Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization, says that rats fed soy leghemoglobin in the company’s safety study developed changes in their blood chemistries that could indicate kidney or other health problems—issues that require follow-up.

What’s more, “there are still no long-term studies of soy leghemoglobin in humans,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at CR. He notes that the process of making it yields at least 45 other proteins as byproducts, which we also consume, and which also need further evaluation. “Is it possible that soy leghemoglobin is safe? Sure,” Hansen says. “Do we know that for sure? No. We just don’t have enough data either way yet.”

Is It Healthier Than Beef?

Not so much. The Impossible Burger’s nutrition profile is fairly close to the Beyond Burger’s: zero dietary cholesterol but not much lower than ground beef in fat and saturated fat. Plus, it has more sodium than beef. And, like the Beyond Burger, the Impossible patty is “ultra processed,” says Fabrice DeClerck, Ph.D., science director of the EAT Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental sustainability. Last, some research suggests that heme iron may contribute to the increased risk of colon cancer and other health problems that have been associated with red meat. And it’s still unknown whether the heme iron from soy leghemoglobin may pose that same risk.

Is It Better for the Environment?

Yes, more or less to the same extent as the Beyond Burger, according to a study commissioned by Impossible Foods. The analysis found that an Impossible Burger generates 89 percent less in greenhouse gases and uses 87 percent less water than a beef burger. Blackstone, the independent expert from Tufts, says that the research is solid.

But DeClerck worries that relying on high-tech foods could contribute to other problems. “Most of our foods—about 60 percent—come from soy, rice, maize, and wheat, and we’re just perpetuating a system that is based on monocultures,” he says. “I’d rather see a low-density grazing system with grass-fed beef than to have that land converted into soybeans.”

Perls, at Friends of the Earth, adds that the hype around meat alternatives distracts from better solutions to climate problems. She also notes that we won’t know the true energy costs of the new foods until they’re produced at a larger scale. “Rather than creating new products that require more energy, more money, and more processed chemicals,” she says, “why not invest in a truly sustainable system,” like organic farms.

Where Can You Buy It?

At Bareburger, Burger King, White Castle, Qdoba, and other restaurants. The company has also debuted its sausage at Little Caesars pizza restaurants. Impossible Foods said it expects to introduce its products in grocery stores this fall. The delay had been getting approval from the FDA for the use of soy leghemoglobin as a color additive, which the agency just granted this past summer.

How Much Does It Cost?

It can cost $1.99 for an Impossible Slider at White Castle, $5.59 for an Impossible Whopper at Burger King, and about $14 at Bareburger. The company has not yet set a price for its products in grocery stores.

Lab-Grown Meat

What Is It?

The short answer: It’s meat tissue grown from animal cells that have been isolated and multiplied in a lab. Several companies, including Just, Memphis Meats, and Mosa Meat, are doing this, mainly with chicken and beef. Others, including Finless Foods and Wild Type, are working on lab-grown fish.

Though each company has its own technology, they all follow the same general steps, says Kate Krueger, Ph.D., research director of New Harvest, a New York-based research institute focused on cellular agriculture. Start with a prime specimen, then collect cells by biopsying the animal (alive or after slaughter) or by extracting stem cells from its blood or an embryo. Next, let the cells proliferate in a solution of nutrients, hormones, and growth agents in a sterile bioreactor. If all goes right, voila, you’ve got meat tissue—or at least something like it.

Proponents foresee it as revolutionary, eliminating the need for feedlots and slaughter. “Theoretically, from a single chicken you can generate cells to make chicken meat to feed the world,” says Vitor Espirito Santo, Ph.D., director of cellular agriculture at Just.

But for now, the companies have yet to bring a single meat product to market (and may not for a while; see below). And what they have manufactured in the lab, and shown in limited demonstrations, is more akin to ground meat—or “unstructured” meat—than, say, a chicken breast or beef steak.

Is It Healthier Than Beef?

Santo, at Just, says that because lab-grown meat will be real meat, it will have a similar nutritional profile, too. But because it is not yet on the market or available for independent analysis (we asked), that’s still not certain.

A potential benefit of lab-grown meat is that it may be less prone to contamination with E. coli, salmonella, and other bacteria, says Steve Myrick, vice president of operations at Memphis Meats. “Because our meat is produced in a controlled production environment and doesn’t involve animal slaughter, we expect to greatly reduce the risk of harmful bacterial contamination that can lead to foodborne illnesses.”

But Hansen, at CR, points out that bacterial contamination can occur in labs, too. And antibiotics are often needed to curb bacteria in cultured cell products from drug companies.

Is It Better for the Environment?

Maybe. An analysis commissioned by Just compared the company’s plant-based products already on the market, including its plant-based “eggs,” to comparable conventionally produced foods and found that the company’s methods saved fresh water and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But because it’s still unknown what lab-grown meat production will look like in full swing, the energy requirements for that remain unclear.

Where Can You Buy It?

Nowhere, yet. Josh Tetrick, CEO of Just, hopes the company will debut lab-grown chicken nuggets in Asia, which has different regulations than the U.S., by the end of 2019. And, he says, the company is working with the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, and internationally, to develop appropriate regulations.

Myrick, at Memphis Meats, says he expects a U.S. product “soon.” And Mosa Meats—which created the first cell-grown beef burger in 2013—says it hopes to have a beef product on the market by 2021.

But Krueger sees challenges that could delay production, such as making enough of the cell-growth medium. Though drugmakers have long done something similar when making biopharmaceuticals, it’s expensive—and complicated. “Making a low-cost, food-grade cell-growth medium is a big challenge,” she says.

Scientists are working on alternatives, including trying to avoid using serum from the blood of fetal cows (which is often used now), because it’s costly and undermines the products’ appeal to people concerned about animal welfare. But Krueger predicts it will be four to six years before “ground” meats are available and a decade or more before we see cuts like steaks.

How Much Will It Cost?

That depends on how effectively companies can scale up. Memphis Meats’ first serving of lab-grown chicken, in 2017, cost tens of thousands of dollars. But it can now make that same serving for less than $100. Just says it can also make a chicken nugget for less than $100, and the “cost will continue to fall as we plan for our restaurant debut.”

Anatomy of Meat vs. Meatless Burgers

Two of CR’s expert tasters, Amy Keating and Claudia Gallo, headed to three Bareburgers near our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters to taste a Beyond Burger and an Impossible Burger. (Separately, they tasted an Amy’s brand veggie burger that did well in CR’s previous tests.)

The verdict?

Both are impressive imitations of real beef, but the Impossible Burger is closer in look and taste: browned on the edges with a pink center, plus a savory, char flavor and a juicy, fatty mouthfeel. The Beyond Burger has a milder, charred flavor and a slight vegetal or grainlike aftertaste. The Amy’s burger doesn’t try to taste like meat, but it does taste good: a big mushroom and nutty flavor with a crispy exterior and chewy grains. It’s also healthier, with less sodium, fat, and calories, and fewer highly processed ingredients.

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