Sat, Sep 21, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Critics challenge health benefits of alt-proteins

Campaigns on both sides of the meaty issue leave consumers with a difficult choice


A side-by-side comparison of the plant-based, vegan Impossible Burger 2.0, left, and a regular beef burger, right.

Photo: AFP

First, there were plants. Then came plant-based products, like tempeh, made from fermented soy beans, and veggie burgers, mash-ups of vegetables and legumes.

Those days seem so innocent and uncomplicated. Now the world is grappling with the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger craze, which has made investors giddy and spurred the health police to ask uncomfortable questions. Aren’t the products that look and taste like actual meat just the latest suspect offerings from the processed-food complex?

The answer is, basically, it depends. The debate rages, as do the competing public relations blitzes. Consumers have to figure it out. The companies making the alternatives should take note.


The stakes are high for Beyond Meat, a Wall Street darling whose stock trades more than six times its early May debut price. The company’s main product, like the one from Impossible Foods, is a burger that is remarkably similar to the kind made from ground beef and even turns brown as it cooks.

Some fans see the patties as ethical choices; cows produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and grass-fed cattle-ranching is cited as a main cause for increasing destruction of the Amazon in Brazil.

But while there’s scientific consensus that human health and the planet would benefit from a shift to more plant-based foods, there’s no agreement about how the newest generation of plant-based meat mimickers fits in.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while noting the risks of diets high in red meat, said people should be “cautious” about the health effects of plant-based alternatives that use purified plant proteins rather than whole foods.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, for one, has said it won’t serve these sorts of meat alternatives because they aren’t pure enough for the chain’s “food with integrity” policy. (The chain’s vegetarian option is a mix of spices and shredded tofu, a soy product that, because it has been altered from its original form, is technically processed, though, the argument goes, not as processed as some alternatives.)

Meanwhile, a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom bought full-page advertisements last month in the Wall Street Journal and New York Post that trashed plant-based meat alternatives as chemical-laden fakes.

“The public is being misled,” said Niko Davis, a spokesman for the nonprofit, which declined to disclose the companies or individuals providing funding. Its website describes its mission as opposing a “cabal of activists” that is against personal choice, such as “health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes and meddling bureaucrats.”

Davis said the group isn’t working with the real-meat industry, though the message is similar. Beef is an “overall better nutritional package without a lot of added sodium” or other additives, said Shalene McNeill, a nutritionist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.


One target for the critics has been the ingredient heme in the Impossible Burger, which is on menus at the Burger King, White Castle, Red Robin and Qdoba chains and thousands of other restaurants.

Heme is mass-produced by fermenting a genetically modified yeast. Some of the hubbub died down after the US Food and Drug Administration said it doesn’t have a problem with it, announcing plans to amend rules to call the use of heme safe as a color additive in imitation beef.

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