The Sunday Magazine

Is meatless meat really better for your health and the planet?

Meat, especially beef, has been getting a bad rap in recent years for the toll it takes on the planet and our health. Hence the soaring popularity of meatless burgers that still look, smell and taste like real meat. But Jim Thomas, a Co-Executive Director and Researcher with the ETC Group in Quebec, says we should think again about whether highly-processed meat substitutes are a real solution.
Meat alternatives: An Original Impossible Burger, left, and a Cali Burger, from Umami Burger, are shown in this photo in New York, Friday, May 3, 2019. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

Meat, especially beef, has been getting a bad rap in recent years for the toll it takes on the planet and our health. 

It's no wonder then that meat substitutes – known more colloquially as fake meat – have become so hugely popular over the last year. Plant-based patties that taste, sizzle and even bleed like beef hamburgers, have been flooding restaurants, burger chains and grocery stories. And they've been satisfying a growing market of health- and eco-conscious consumers who are looking for alternatives to red meat. 

But just how much of a solution are these plant-based burgers? 

We're moving into the idea of food being something that's produced in a lab.- Jim Thomas

"This has nothing to do with trying to solve the problems of our food system. This is just about trying to create new niches and new hype to sell to consumers," Jim Thomas told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright.

Thomas is a co-executive director and researcher with the ETC Group, an organization based in Quebec that tracks how new technologies impact food systems, biodiversity, equity and human rights.

"There's nothing particularly beyond about the Beyond Burger and it doesn't really go beyond the industrial food system at the moment," Thomas added. 

Does the beyond burger qualify as a healthier alternative to a beefy patty? (CBC)

The appetite for these new meatless burgers has been huge. When the burger chain A&W introduced the Beyond Meat patty to Canadians last fall, its restaurants across the country sold out within days and took months to restock them. Beyond Meat burgers and sausages are now also on offer at Tim Hortons and in the meat sections of major supermarkets. 

Another prominent fake meat burger is sold by Impossible Foods, and is available in Canada at Burger King. Meanwhile, KFC is testing fake fried chicken, Kellogg's is introducing a new line called Incogmeato, and even Tyson – the largest meat producer in the U.S. – says it plans to launch its own line of fake meat options. 

'Ultra-processed foods'

The new food guide has advised Canadians to eat less meat and more plant-based proteins, to avoid the health risks associated with eating red and processed meats, like cancer and heart disease.

But Thomas says that if consumers are choosing meatless burgers as an alternative, they need to think again. 

"These are what we call ultra-processed foods," he said. "You're talking about a very processed bean protein basically that's being mixed in with various other ingredients."

[There is] a lot more sodium than you would have in normal meat.- Jim Thomas

"The latest Canada Food Guide says very clearly, 'keep away from highly-processed foods.' And some of these burgers have something like 19 different ingredients and they've been massively processed." 

Thomas also raised concerns about the nutritional profile of these meat alternatives. 

"Not only is the saturated fat pretty much the same but actually … [there is] a lot more sodium than you would have in normal meat."

But, he added, "to be concerned about these new ultra-processed meat alternatives is not to give meat a clean break. Of course it depends what meat ... If we're talking about grass-fed and organic meat that's produced in ways that improve its quality then that's different from the sort of industrial meat that is a real problem."

Thomas and his organization the ETC Group are also particularly concerned about the use of genetically-engineered ingredients in the Impossible Burger. 

To make its burgers bleed, Impossible Foods produces soy leghemoglobin (also known as heme) by genetically engineering yeast. 

While heme is an important part of blood that carries iron, Thomas said, this is a different kind of heme than you would find in the blood of an animal – one that has never before been part of the human food supply. 

Back in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. raised questions about the safety of the genetically-modified heme used by Impossible Foods. But the company has since submitted new research and findings, and received clearance from the FDA about the product's safety. Impossible Foods has also consistently contested the safety concerns raised by the ETC Group and other anti-GMO organizations. 

Eco-friendly meat?

KFC and Beyond Meat launched plant-based chicken at a local Atlanta KFC, featuring an oversized bucket, accented by KFC's temporarily green exterior, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. (John Amis/The Associated Press/Beyond Meat)

Fake meat companies have also relied heavily on marketing themselves as being better for the planet. 

Food consumers, particularly those in the younger generation, have grown more and more concerned about the environmental impact of eating beef, mainly due to the greenhouse gas emissions and extensive land and water use involved in its production. 

But the ecological claims of the fake meat industry have drawn skepticism from those who say that highly-processed plant-based products are still taxing on the environment. 

"These fake meats only really address one part of the problem in the food system," Thomas said. "They're still drenched in pesticides. They are still produced in monocultures. None of that gets shifted."

He also added that the solution to land use issues is not as straightforward as simply removing animals from the picture. 

"There are certainly good reasons to be concerned about industrial meat production," he said. "But I would say that there is a role for animals in a genuinely environmental agriculture, for example grass-fed beef and the use of extensive grazing."

It's also important to know where our plant-based sources come from, Thomas said. 

"Soybean production, for example, is massively problematic in the Amazon which is burning right now partly because of the clearances and the impact that's had on the climate," he said. 

From 'Big Meat' to 'Big Protein'

What's more, while the "Big Meat" industry has been widely criticized over its ethics and for being unsustainable, Thomas isn't convinced that fake meat represents a real threat to the meat industry. 

"The meat industry is busy renaming itself as a protein industry: big protein," he said. 

"This is really an investment bubble ... There has been a lot of interest in Silicon Valley about 'Can we disrupt the food system? Can we create a bubble and hype and excitement about alternative proteins and try and sell those?'  

"That's really part of the interest of [meat] companies like Tyson and Cargill and Maple Leaf and others. It's about being protein companies."

Looking ahead, Thomas says he's concerned about the growing movement away from natural foods. 

"There are a number of Silicon-Valley-invested companies who are trying to produce meat in a petri dish, produce alternatives to milk and cheese and so forth in a petri dish," he said.

"We're moving into the idea of food being something that's produced in a lab, in a factory really, away from the sort of food produced in nature that I think most people want. 

"I think when most people think of the kind of food they would like to feed their family, it grows on a farm and it's grown by farmers and it's in the environment and it works with bees and pollinators. That's 180 degrees from the vision of food of these companies."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.