Meat replacement has come a long way over the past few years. People who choose not to eat meat now have far more choice than just textured vegetable protein and Quorn.
Two major growth areas right now are lab-cultured “meat” and meat-free products that claim to have many of the properties of the real thing but with much lower environmental and health costs.
One recent product to hit the shelves is the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat based in El Segundo, California.
So is this new fake meat “the future of protein” as the makers claim? We’ll compare it with pastured beef to see how it compares on the three important factors: health, welfare, and environment.
Healthier than Beef?
Let’s have a look at what goes into these realistic-looking burger patties and ask, is this going to be better for our health?
The Beyond Burger page presents the following summary, which suggests the Beyond Burger is superior in almost every aspect to “animal-based beef” (i.e. beef). But what’s the truth?
Let’s compare this line by line.
- Protein, 5% higher. Not all protein is created equal. See below for a breakdown of the essential nutrients that are present in – and missing from – the Beyond Burger.
- Iron, 150% higher. This very much depends on how the iron is delivered. Vegetable sources of iron are delivered in compounds known as “nonheme iron”, whereas iron sourced from meat is “heme iron”. The U.S. National Institute of Health advises that vegetarians need to consume 1.8x the amount of (nonheme) iron in their diets compared to meat eaters, because of the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron (i.e. it’s harder for your body to absorb). In this case, if there is 2.5x the amount of nonheme iron in the Beyond Burger than a regular beef burger, this should deliver at least an equivalent amount of bioavailable iron.
Heme iron has higher bioavailability than nonheme iron, and other dietary components have less effect on the bioavailability of heme than nonheme iron [3,4]. The bioavailability of iron is approximately 14% to 18% from mixed diets that include substantial amounts of meat, seafood, and vitamin C (ascorbic acid, which enhances the bioavailability of nonheme iron) and 5% to 12% from vegetarian diets [2,4]. In addition to ascorbic acid, meat, poultry, and seafood can enhance nonheme iron absorption, whereas phytate (present in grains and beans) and certain polyphenols in some non-animal foods (such as cereals and legumes) have the opposite effect . Unlike other inhibitors of iron absorption, calcium might reduce the bioavailability of both nonheme and heme iron. However, the effects of enhancers and inhibitors of iron absorption are attenuated by a typical mixed western diet, so they have little effect on most people’s iron status. (Source)
- Saturated fat, zero. I have no problem at all with saturated fat, however one of the ingredients of the Beyond Burger is coconut oil, which does count as a saturated fat.
- Cholesterol, zero. Again, dietary cholesterol is now known not to be a danger to health (as was widely believed for a few decades). Your body makes 80% of the cholesterol it needs, and only a small amount comes from food.
- Total fat, slightly lower. Your body needs fats! It’s an ideal energy source, and very important for things like a healthy nervous system. We do not need to avoid fat in our diet.
- Calories, slightly lower. Meaningless.
- Plant-based. If this is what matters most to you, you don’t need to read the rest of this article.
- Antibiotic-free / Hormone-free / GMO-free: All meat you buy should be free of all these things, if you buy natural and organic.
Despite the flood of green check marks, I don’t think this list shows one clear benefit of Beyond Burger over Beef.
Examining the Ingredients
Here’s the ingredients list from Beyond Meat’s website:
(Main ingredients): Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil.
(Contains 2% or less of the following): Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality), Ascorbic Acid (to maintain color), Beet Juice Extract (for color), Acetic Acid, Succinic Acid, Modified Food Starch, Annatto (for color).
Let’s focus on the main three ingredients after water, as these make up the majority of the product.
Pea Protein Isolate
Pea protein isolate is an extract from the yellow pea that has been processed to remove its carbohydrate content. It has a similar protein profile to other legumes (peas and beans).
It is gaining popularity in the market due in part to concerns over soy, which is usually genetically-modified. Soy also contains chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen and so has been linked in studies to fertility problems in women as well as various developmental issues in fetuses and children. The USDA has so far refused to grant Soy Protein Isolate GRAS (“Generally Recognized as Safe”) status
Pea protein is dairy-free and easily digested by most people. A minority may have an allergy to legumes, the family that also includes soy beans and peanuts, so pea protein may not be suitable for this group.
Like other legumes, the protein you get from the yellow pea might not be considered a complete protein source.
It does contain the nine essential amino acids. This includes branched-chain amino acids, although in lower amounts than whey protein (derived from milk). Pea protein does, however, contain much more of the amino acid arginine than whey.
However, our bodies don’t just need amino acids, but essential fatty acids (EFAs) too and pea protein does not contain these. EFAs, which include Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, can be found in fish and other seafood, nuts, algae, and meat products.
Our verdict: Yellow pea protein isolate is clearly preferable to soy protein, but it does not alone provide all the essential nutrients a body needs, so cannot be considered a true substitute for meat.
Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil
Canola oil is an extract from the seed of a derivative the oilseed rape plant.
(Canola was created in the 1970s, but genetically modified and reinvented in 1995 by Monsanto. The vast majority of canola oil is therefore GM product, but we understand that the oil used by Beyond Meats is guaranteed non-GM.)
“Expeller-pressed” means the oil has been extracted from the rapeseed mechanically, usually with a screw press, which is preferable to other methods that include extraction using industrial solvents.
On the plus side, canola oil is high in the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids, however many people harbor serious concerns over its safety.
Canola is frequently hydrogenated, an industrial process that makes the oil more stable (remaining liquid at cooler temperatures). It has been associated with numerous health issues, including liver and kidney problems, heart damage, hypertension, and delayed growth in children, along with the many known risks linked to hydrogenated fats. This article claims a link to Alzheimer’s.
According to dietary fat experts Mary Enig and Sally Fallon:
Like all modern vegetable oils, canola oil goes through the process of refining, bleaching and degumming — all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. And because canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid and foul-smelling when subjected to oxygen and high temperatures, it must be deodorized. The standard deodorization process removes a large portion of the omega-3 fatty acids by turning them into trans fatty acids. Although the Canadian government lists the trans content of canola at a minimal 0.2 percent, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville, found trans levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercial liquid oil. The consumer has no clue about the presence of trans fatty acids in canola oil because they are not listed on the label.
Our verdict: While canola oil will supply some of the missing essential fatty acids not provided by the pea protein isolate, due to the unknown effects of genetic modification and the many industrial processes it goes through, we cannot at this point consider it a healthy food until long-term studies have been completed.
Refined Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a saturated fat that is extracted from the coconut. It is a shorter-chained saturated fat (comprising mostly medium chain triglycerides) than animal fats, which means it is metabolized by your body quicker.
The medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil include lauric acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, myristic acid, and palmitic acid. Lauric acid represents over 50% of the MCT content, and has long been associated with numerous health benefits.
Coconut oil also contains linoleic acid (a polyunsaturated Omega-6 fatty acid) and oleic acid (a monounsaturated Omega-9 fatty acid), vitamin E, vitamin K, and some iron.
Refined coconut oil suggests that it has been purified, but it should really be labeled “processed coconut oil.” The product is milder in flavor than unrefined, virgin, or cold-pressed coconut oil, having undergone a process of baking, extraction and then bleaching.
(Some cheaper products marketed as refined coconut oil are known to contain partially-hydrogenated fats, but there is no reason to believe this would apply to the oil used in the Beyond Meat products.)
Our verdict: Coconut oil certainly supplies some of the missing fatty acids not present in the pea protein and canola ingredients, although more analysis is required to determine whether the quantities supplied would approach the levels required for optimal health.
Conclusion: Healthier than meat? No!!
It is clear that some essential nutrients are missing from the Beyond Burger, including essential fatty acids EPA and DHA as well as cancer-preventing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
It will certainly provide some of the nutrients a body needs to be healthy, provided it is consumed as part of a varied diet. However, it can by no means be considered a complete substitute to meat.
So can Beyond Meat justify the claim of being “The Future of Protein®“? Clearly not yet, and possibly never. This product is a long way off being able to deliver nutrition that rivals the health benefits of good, organic, pasture-raised meat.
Better for the Animals and the Environment?
A couple other reasons for people to consider eating something like the Beyond Meat product is that it is supposedly “better for the animals and the environment.”
A question is, how true is this statement? Perhaps from the outset, it means not partaking in the consuming of animal protein that comes from industrialized and confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, but my question to you is, what about meat from animals raised on pasture, in organic and regenerative systems? Is the Beyond Meat product still better than that?
The ingredients listed above could only come from industrialized cropping systems that do not care for the soil, and are a product–if not a cause–of millions of animal deaths every year, as well as displacing wildlife from their natural habitats every time more land needs to be cleared and converted for more cropland production.
Animal Ethics – Those in the Field
Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.
At least 100 mice are killed per hectare per year (500/4 × 0.8) to grow grain. Average yields are about 1.4 tonnes of wheat/hectare; 13% of the wheat is useable protein. Therefore, at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef.
The above is just from one area of the world. Other parts of the world, including Europe, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Ecuador, China, and many others would have experienced similar, including other animals apart from mice such as birds, frogs, deer fawns, foxes, rabbits, insects, and other wildlife.
Animals do not understand that the wheat, soybean, canola, or corn crop is only there for 3 or 4 months out of the year. They also do not understand that this crop will have large equipment pass over it to spray pesticides (basically poisons), then remove the entire plant cover entirely as harvest. Also, that land will then be tilled.
Commonly animals see this crop as a source of food and shelter, even though it’s not even natural to them. Mice will nest in midst of the soil clumps in between the towering plants. Birds often will try this as well, if they dare, and if there is enough insects to do so. Pollinators take the brief opportunity to get nectar from crop flowers (such as canola or soybeans), before the plants–all at once usually–turn flowers into seed pods. This brief spell of abundance means that pollinators need to search elsewhere during the rest of the season for food.
This temporary food and shelter resource is short-lived. Large equipment that almost never see these animals moves at a pace that often never allows these animals enough time to escape. A common argument among veg[etari]ans is that the animals will be able to hear the combine-harvester motors and feel the rumblings to be able to away to safety in time. This combine sieve, however, from a 2015 late-season harvest in Manitoba with a particularly high amount of mice in the field, tells a completely different story:
Some other stories abound about animals, for instance from raccoons to rabbits to frogs that needed to be separated from the sweet corn on the conveyer belt so that the corn could be ready for sale at market. Did these animals also have the ability to hear the motors of the combine harvesters and feel the rumblings in time enough to get away to safety? The answer is yes, they more than likely did, but the sound would have been so ubiquitous that they had no idea where to escape. Many would have ended running towards the danger, instead of away.
Let’s not also forget the deaths from being poisoned by the pesticides that were intended for one particular pest, or a few select weeds. There are warning labels on these chemicals that certainly keep people safe, but wildlife don’t read those same labels. They don’t know to stay away from a crop field that was just recently sprayed. They also don’t know to not eat the very plants that were just sprayed with a pesticide. They may smell a weird scent that they don’t understand which may help them to survive by avoiding the area, but we really don’t know if they’re that intelligent to associate that odd chemical smell (or taste) with the fact that that smell or that off-taste is actually going to kill them in a matter of days or even weeks…
An interesting study done by Dr. Jonathan Lundgren showed us how pesticides that are supposed to target a particular test, actually pose a great risk of also targeting and killing non-target insect species, including pollinators. You can check the 27-minute long presentation from the 2017 Grassfed Exchange conference right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53wmeXlQo1I
The disturbing animal ethics part of this is that the deaths of these animals are almost never quick nor painless. The ones that do get to go that way are the lucky ones. But those that get maimed and seriously injured are left to die a slow and painful death–if they’re not quickly picked off by waiting predators. From an ethics point of view, it’s better for an animal to have a death that is as quick and painless as possible, not be forced to suffer. It isn’t a pleasant thing to consider that those animals that died in that crop field, died in a quick manner. Even a predator like a hawk or raven is more, shall we say for lack of better words, “compassionate” to those animals’ plights. But a combine? Or even an air seeder or a cultivator? What about these agrochemicals? No, definitely not.
By comparison, a beef steer that was raised on pasture, even in a regenerative manner, and was slaughtered for meat, would have a far better death than those field mice or birds. The slaughter process, no matter if it’s in the abattoir or on-farm, is so quick and painless that the steer never knew what happened to him, and never recovers to be able to feel anything afterwards.
Unlike the wasted wreckage on the corn or soybean fields, practically every single cell of his body will be used for food, fibre and other uses. Ethically, that steer is being honoured for his contributions while alive and for what he can give us after death, which is a great service to us, in return for our ability to ensure his life was as good as it could ever be.
So cropland agriculture isn’t ethical from the animals’ perspective… But what about environmentally? Are the ingredients in the Beyond Burger better (or less harmful) for the environment than something like grass-fed beef?
Environmental Concerns: It Starts with the Soil
There is not one listed ingredient that comes from perennial vegetative systems, not even close to where grass-fed beef comes from. This should be of concern for everyone.
Industrialized crop production is focused only on yields. It only asks what chemicals to use to grow a bigger crop, and what pesticides to use to kill a weed, an insect pest, or a fungal disease. Never does it ask what it does to the soil.
The two biggest problems is tillage and pesticides.
Tillage breaks up soil aggregate structure, or any effort of plant roots to build something of this sort. This leads to finer soil particles which are at greater risk of erosion by wind or water. These particles, which may often contain nutrient value for plants, can be carried away for miles to never be seen again.
When it rains, the soil particles can be so fine that there is very little space in between for water to percolate down into the soil. The particles that don’t stay will get carried downhill with the water streams into streams or estuaries, and eventually unto rivers which run into oceans.
Historical records have shown that tillage, well before fertilizer and pesticides were introduced, caused massive topsoil loss by several feet over several decades. Farmers that were originally farming the once-rich topsoil turned into farmers farming subsoil–dirt–to grow wheat or corn in. Today, a lot of farmers are dealing with erosion in the form of large and deep gullies.
Some of the fertilizer that would have been applied and has dissolved in this moisture also is at risk at being carried away down into the various water bodies. This causes algal blooms from the phosphates and high nitrate levels in the water, making it unsafe to drink and inhabitable to wildlife. This is evident in the Gulf of Mexico, with a large dead zone that has been linked to fertilizer use in croplands.
When these fine soil particles dry, they bound closely together. They cause the soil to “cap” and not be able to “breathe,” or allow water and air to be exchanged in its depths. Saturated soil especially is problematic, as it becomes anaerobic. Anaerobic soils may be a significant methane emissions source.
Compaction is a real issue with cultivated or tilled soils. Large machinery are particularly hard on soil this way, with repeated treading, even if this compaction appears not possible when a 20-ton four-wheel-drive tractor is pulling a cultivator along. Often a “plough-pan layer” is developed, usually less than a foot below the soil surface.
Fine soil particles are much more able to pack tightly together, reducing space for air and water. Extra moisture can exacerbate this, because when that water leaves, these clumps are tightly bound together. Plant roots that do not have the force to be able to punch through this compaction layer, are limited in where they can grow. Often if they can’t grow down, they will grow along this plough-pan layer. If moisture in the form of rain is of short supply for a long period of time, this will negatively affect plants in terms of growth and survivability.
Tillage also promotes the growth and proliferation of certain bacteria which actively consume organic matter. While this may seem like a short-term boost in productivity for the crop farmer with the nitrates that are quickly released by these organisms, this boost is short-lived, lasting possibly only a couple of growing seasons. Organic matter levels become depleted so that the farmer has to rely on fertilizers instead to get a similar production boost for his crop. Often organic matter levels in most crop fields rarely exceed 1 or 2%.
The benefit for bacteria to be rapidly consuming organic matter in this way is because it provides nutrition for the primary-successional plants that almost immediately germinate and grow–these being your typical “weeds” you may find in the garden. These first-successional species’ main job is to protect the soil, and put down as much seed as possible to ensure their survival for the next season, or the next time they get a chance to do it all again. These are annual plant species; they grow up, and die after spreading seed. In a matter of time these annuals are eventually replaced by perennials. Once the perennials take over, these annual weeds disappear.
Of course, seeing these weeds often causes panic which leads to finding out what pesticides to use to kill these weeds. However pesticides in and of themselves are not all that good for the environment, particularly the soil.
There is some unintended consequences that come with using pesticides. While the intent is to kill a weed or insect pest, it can mean also killing a lot of the the soil biology. It may not be the chemical itself that kills the various microbes and macrobes in the soil per se, but rather the plants that those animals feed on, or receive nutrients from, that are so negatively affected. That is not to say that the pesticide chemical is not capable of killing soil biology, because it may very well have such capabilities.
Also, because animals (including insects) and plants have the amazing ability to adapt to their environment, pesticides can become rendered ineffective when those organisms have developed resistance to those chemicals. A different concoction of several pesticides, or off-label use can often recommended by agrologists and chemical reps to kill those weeds or pests. This battle can only go on for so long. According to Dr. Lundgren (see video link above), this can also mean an increase in pest populations when targeted pesticides are used, which questions the effectiveness of these chemicals.
Particularly when comparing the effectiveness of creating an ecosystem that encourages diversity and more insect pest predators, from spiders to ladybugs to predatory wasps!
Certainly regenerative, beyond-organic cropping practices are a vast improvement from conventional industrial practices. However when it comes down to the Beyond Burger, and the marketing used to make it seem “better” than beef, there has been some major caveats that have shown that it is not, in fact, as healthy nor environmentally-friendly as it purports to be.
Particularly when looking at beef cattle on pasture or grasslands, which are perennial vegetative systems, the Beyond Meat product doesn’t compare to the ability of cattle to help with various environmentally-conscious efforts including greater flora and fauna biodiversity, carbon sequestration, better water infiltration, and protecting the soil while also encouraging a healthy and active soil biological ecosystem. In particular, we need holistically-managed regenerative-raised livestock–by the hands and minds of those people capable of carrying out such management feats–to be able to do this, and provide a healthy, wholesome product to consumers in the form of beef.
The Beyond Meat burger does not address the problems associated with crop production when they use products that are from industrial-agriculture production practices.
From an animal ethics standpoint, the greater consumption of this product by consumers means more wild animal deaths which are tragic and inhumane by most standards, as well as greater potential for wildlife habitat to be destroyed, and wildlife thereby displaced, for more crop production.
Environmentally speaking, the Beyond Meat product, to put it simply and succinctly, contributes to the destruction of the soil. This points directly to the elephant in the room, which is that it is an environmentally-destructive product. With current cropping practices contributing to topsoil losses, massive erosion problems of both air and water, and a killing of soil life, this product only encourages the exacerbation of these issues. It does not solve it, or any such problem whatsoever.
For you the consumer, we strongly encourage you to look elsewhere for healthier, more environmentally-friendly and animal-friendly products. Regeneratively-raised grass-fed beef is recommended, as well as plant-based foods from sources with regenerative goals in mind and in practice. Source from local farmers, as they always need your help.
But please, save your money and pass off on the Beyond Burger. The Earth and its animals will thank you.