Beyond Famous Star Burger

PR Spin Makes Processed Fake Meat Seem Healthy

It’s vegan, plant-based protein. But it’s food in a familiar, comforting form. What’s not to like about the Beyond Burger? Now starring at Carl’s Jr. You’ll feel great about the health, sustainability, and animal welfare benefits of plant-based protein, say the folks at Beyond Meat. On the other hand, though, it is highly processed fake meat.

What Are We to Think?

Alicia Kennedy has a view. Writing on How We Get to Next, she says Silicon Valley’s meatless tech burgers are a false kind of moral and environmental revolution. Consider the ingredients in a Beyond Burger:

Pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.

That doesn’t sound much like a simple, whole food. It must take a whole lotta processing to make that stuff look like a burger. In the end, high tech fake meat might not offer a huge advance beyond the problems of factory farmed meat. But we can call it good, because it’s vegan. And it’s very clever, too.

The Processed Food Supply

As we’ve pointed out before, processed foods make up a big part of our food supply and they’re unlikely to disappear. Simplistic thinking about virtuous eating will not bring us more healthful, sustainable food systems. It might only bring us fake vegan meat.

Remember Spam? It was a technological marvel that helped many soldiers survive World War II. History may not repeat itself. But it sure does rhyme. So building sustainable food systems will be a challenge for many years to come.

Click here for Kennedy’s essay and here for further perspective from Bloomberg.

Beyond Famous Star Burger, photograph © Beyond Meat

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May 11, 2019

3 Responses to “PR Spin Makes Processed Fake Meat Seem Healthy”

  1. May 11, 2019 at 7:57 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – thank you for this as I’ve not spent much time considering these issues.

    But I am confused in particular by this para:

    “That doesn’t sound much like a simple, whole food. It must take a whole lotta processing to make that stuff look like a burger. In the end, high tech fake meat might offer nothing more than a way to repeat the mistakes of factory farmed meat. But then, we can call it good, because it’s vegan. And it’s very clever, too.”

    Given what we know about the burdens on the environment and health of low-cost animal protein, it feels like this sets up a false equivalence: how can even this highly-processed food “repeat the mistakes of factory farmed meat”?

    Thank you for your patience with my sleep-deprived brain (got home just before 2am last night from travel–yeah!! Woo!!!).

    Joe

  2. May 11, 2019 at 8:34 am, Ted said:

    I believe Ms. Kennedy was suggesting that commoditizing and formulating plant protein into highly processed forms is not much better than manufacturing meat on factory farms. She’s advocating for real, whole foods rather than manufactured fake foods. In her words:

    A future food system that doesn’t mimic meat’s mistakes could still be possible — but it might require going back to basics. Light up the stove: there are lentils to boil.

  3. May 13, 2019 at 8:11 pm, Linda said:

    These new plant-based meat analogues are palatable to many vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. I can’t say the same for their predecessors. I don’t think of them as an everyday food, but as an occasional treat. I’m not sure they are nutritionally superior to hamburgers, or not. But as a vegetarian of of 46 years, I really don’t care about that. I can fit in a treat every now and then when I eat mostly fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds as my mainstay.