It’s one of the most depressing aspects of environmentalism that pressing needs for change inevitably get turned into saleable products. As the need to reduce our meat consumption rises, so too does the number of so-called ‘meat substitutes’ – products which aim to get us to eat less meat while still pretending that we are eating meat.
There are real problems with meat analogues – both old and new – which, in their enthusiasm, supporters either don’t understand or wilfully choose to ignore.
The glossy PR about the future of food is compelling. But fake meat is no more the future of food than fake fur or fake leather are the future of clothing.
Moreover, as with all market solutions to complex problems, once the cracks begin to show they quickly become irreparable.
Documents have very recently emerged which show that the US FDA has repeatedly sought, but not received, proof of safety for the one of the ingredients in the much vaunted Impossible Burger, a substance known as soy leghemoglobin (SLH).
Panel of paid experts
The documents were obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ETC Group and other environmental and consumer organisations.
The Impossible Burger is already on sale in selected outlets across the US. Backed by $257 million in venture capital funding from Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates amongst others, manufacturers Impossible Foods, have pushed it onto the marketplace on the basis of a self-affirmed GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) status. Its panel of paid experts determined that the SLH proteins were structurally similar to natural ones and therefore safe. The FDA, however, rejects this claim.
Amongst its concerns was whether SLH was an allergen and in the FDA’s words: “The current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.”
So many campaigners were super excited by the developments, but food being the big business that it is, the Impossible Burger does not need FDA GRAS status to remain on the market.
Regulations don’t require the company to disclose the results of its own safety tests or even share them with the FDA, so really we may never know what testing was done unless, or until, more whistleblower documents suddenly appear. Or until it kills someone.
This story will run for a while, but while we wait it’s worth deconstructing other aspects of the burger as well.
The SLH in the Impossible Burger is produced using a genetically engineered yeast culture. Its purpose is to make the burger cook and taste more like meat.
Impossible Foods maintains that humans have been eating this kind of heme for “hundreds of thousands of years”. But this is a novel ingredient which has only emerged in the last few years.
The SLH, a plant based source of iron, also makes the burger appear to ‘bleed’ when cooked.
Technically the manufacturers should not be referring to it as heme since this is only present in meat and shellfish. Plants produce non-heme iron.
But more importantly, the FOIA documents reveal that up to a quarter of this heme ingredient is composed of 46 “unexpected” additional proteins, some of which are unidentified and none of which have been assessed for safety.
Unexpected proteins are common in genetically modified foods and are the reason why campaigners believe that regulators’ reliance on the concept of ‘substantial equivalence’ (the idea that if a GMO food looks and tastes the same it can be considered the same as non-GMO food for regulatory purposes) is both false and risky.
In 2016, for instance, scientists at Kings College found that a genetic modification altered levels of different proteins in strain of GMO maize, NK603, which is widely consumed by humans and animals.
Amongst other things the GMO maize was found to contain substantially higher levels of the polyamines cadaverine and putrescine, which can heighten allergic reactions and are involved in the formation of carcinogenic substances in the body.
The distorted focus on the bleeding burger and its ‘heme’ content assumes that foods, like Lego action figures, are just assemblages of individual components. It denies the fact that fresh meat, just like fresh grains, pulses and vegetables, is a wholefood and that wholefoods are complex. We really haven’t even scratched the surface of how the components of wholefoods work synergistically with each other and in our bodies.
Strict vegetarian diet
But there are some things we do know and one of these is that there is more to nutrition than how much of something a product has in it. Iron, in particular is tricky stuff and how much the body absorbs is dependent on multiple factors including the source of the iron and how low or high an individual body’s iron stores are.
Impossible Foods nutrition data suggests that its burger has more iron than a comparably sized ground beef burger, which on the surface of things looks true.
But some aspects of the matrix may render this unavailable to the body. For instance, soya and wheat contain phytates, fibre that binds to iron and transports it through the digestive tract unabsorbed.
Experts continue to wrestle with the issue of iron bioavailability from different foods; it is possible, for example, that the processing of the Impossible Burger may break down some of the phytates and make iron more bioavailable. But in general only 5-12% of the iron in a strict vegetarian diet is absorbed, compared to 14-18% from a mixed diet that includes meat.
Unlike the lab grown meat which debuted in 2013, the Impossible Burger is said to be made from ‘plant products’.
Yet, Impossible Foods founder Patrick O. Brown and COO/CFO David Lee didn’t go out into the back garden together and pick a bunch of veg and turn it into a burger. This is a highly processed product made in a way that is not so much vegetarian as vat-etarian.
The assumption behind it is that if you can make it look the same, feel the same and ‘bleed’ the same then no one will notice the difference between it and a regular meat pattie.
It’s not entirely clear that taste tests have shown this to be true, and this burger is several steps removed from its plant-origins. To get the wheat and soya proteins to clump together like those in meat, and therefore give the burger some ‘bite’, they need to be ‘plasticised’.
Water and powdered proteins are poured into a machine with two long, intertwined screw-like shafts. The mix is churned through these whilst alternatively being heated and cooled to turn it into fibres that can be moulded together in a burger shape and have a meat-like bite.
This extrusion process is the same basic one used to make plastic from maize or soya.
Starting at the lower end of the market with one of the world’s favourite fast foods is, of course, a clever way to try and hide the potential shortcomings of plastic food.
Most of us can barely identify the meat in a ‘real’ ground beef burger – which is why not so long ago Burger King had to come clean about the horsemeat in its burgers. Burgers from Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores in the UK were similarly found to contain horsemeat. In fact the Tesco’s ‘everyday value burgers’ were almost one third horsemeat.
Shoved between two large pieces of bread and slathered with mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and maybe even cheese, almost any meat analogue can hold its own for a meal to two.
The same could be said for other cheap eats like ‘wraps’. This may be why US chef Mark Bittman, famously said he could not tell the difference between a wrap containing real chicken and one with Beyond Meat brand chicken strips with all the trimmings.
But the question remains as to whether this kind of highly-processed food can ever be eaten on its own and whether this really is what we want to be eating for the rest of our lives.
Some of the new proposed fake meats are whizzed up in a lab, often in large vats – a process that is not so much vegetarian as vat-etarian.
It’s doubtful that any lab-based product will ever be scaleable to meet current consumption and trying to do so will quickly reveal the inefficiency of lab-based products, not the least of which is the energy they require for instance for heating, refrigeration and other processes.
It’s important also to remember that laboratory food is as prone to contamination – perhaps even more so – as most food processing plants. With increasingly poor oversight on our food system it’s an accident waiting to happen.
Some fake meats are made from products that, while they may work or even seem sustainable on a very small scale will never be able to replace meat in the volumes in which we currently eat it.
Lupin is an example of this. There will never be enough lupin the world to replace our current meat consumption. It will remain a small and expensive alternative.
On the other hand, some meat substitutes are made from crops we have plenty of, like soya. The agricultural world is already overrun with large, damaging monocultures of soya, a large proportion of which is genetically modified and most of which are being fed to animals or turned into biofuels. In fact, nearly half of the soya currently grown is made into food for cars instead of people.
Even if you take animal feed out of the equation, it is likely that we will need more – not fewer – soya fields to meet demand for fake meats (assuming there is demand – again this has yet to be conclusively demonstrated).
And let’s be clear. There’s nothing ethical about soya. The industry is run by large, ruthless companies that wantonly destroy land and the livelihoods of small, powerless farmers. Ask countries like Brazil and Argentina whether we need to grow more soya in order to build a vat-etarian utopia and the answer will be no.
The corporate cupboard
The people and corporations behind vat-etarian foods are largely those who have no experience of farming or interest in food as anything other than a commodity and a marketplace.
Most of them, as I’ve written before, have already made their millions in computer software. These are aggressive business people who understand the power of the patent. As the software industry reaches saturation point they are looking for new games to play and new ways to own something that will make them money.
Look behind the scenes of the new meat and animal product analogues and you will see a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley magnates. These include Microsoft founder Bill Gates (chickenless eggs), Sun Micorsystems’ Vinod Khosla and (egg and cheese analogues and lab-grown meat and leather) and twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone (the newly launched Beyond Meat chicken analogue).
The world’s first in vitro burger, a long-time project of Dutch vascular physiologist Mark Postat of Maastricht University cost $330,000 to produce was backed by money from Google founder Sergey Brin.
Taking an even bigger step into the brave new world of food, Modern Meadow, backed PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, is working on using 3D bioprinting to produce leather and, one day, meat.
Bioprinting uses a biological ‘ink’ containing various types of cells. The ink can be printed out in multiple layers, and in three dimensions, to produce a structure such as a kidney or an ear. The ultimate end result is a steak you can print out from biological materials.
There is, similarly, a growing corporate interest in synthetic biology (synbio) where DNA sequences are written on computer and printed off on 3D printers and used to make synthetic version of vanilla, saffron, stevia, coconut and cocoa amongst other things.
Food, software, whatever
If you need more evidence that patents rather than people are at the heart of the new corporate foodies look no further than the cheerleaders for biotech in the 2013 Bowman vs Monsanto case, which focused on seed patents. Monsanto won that one when the US Supreme Court unanimously agreed that farmers do not have the right to plant and grow saved, patented seeds without the patent owner’s permission.
That result was inevitable, but what most people didn’t see was that BSA/The Software Alliance, a trade association created to advance the interests of the software industry, and which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, helped the case along with an amicus brief to the court. This warned that a decision against Monsanto might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software, like seeds, can be easily replicated/reproduced.
A dangerous mindset
What all these savvy investors have in common is an eye for a market in need of a shakeup. They believe the processed food industry is in real need of their expertise in branding, patenting and IP in order to turn the ultimate open source resource, food, into a privately owned commodity to be wrapped up in a shiny package of public good, and sold to a premium market.
Target markets include schools and hospitals – places where ‘bad food’ has become a talking point. Restaurants too are being the unwitting partners in normalising the fake food phenomenon. Impossible Foods claims to be “partnering with chefs and restaurants to bring Impossible Burgers to mouths everywhere”.
What schools, hospitals and restaurants have in common is an ability to open up markets while obscuring the reality of food ingredients.
It’s hard to overstate how dangerous it is to bring this kind of mindset into food.
For the most part the eggless eggs, the chickenless chickens, the milkless milks are still at development stage. They are proofs of concept with multiple problems of cost, scale, palatability, safety and a general ‘yuck factor’ to overcome.
As it is with software, most of these products will never really have to move beyond proof of concept – and their problems never need truly be overcome – for those behind them to be bought out for eye-watering sums and retire to their private islands before the age of 50.
A middle class fantasy
Vat-etarian food is designed and built rather than grown and harvested. How much we embrace this idea as the future of food will determine how we eat for the next millennia.
The truth is that the Impossible Burger and the other analogue foods like it are a comically first world fantasy of what solutions look like.
Such foods do nothing to solve the seemingly intractable problems of the food system. They don’t ‘feed the world’. They move us not forward but backwards into an age where we unquestioningly accept whatever is put in front of us trusting that the mother corporation will serve us up something good that we don’t have to think about too much.