Like it or not, plant-based patties are here to stay. Growth is expected to be close to $29 billion by 2025, and sales of plant-based products close to $12 billion this year, it is highly unlikely that this is a fad that will soon disappear.
According to market research firm Euromonitor, U.S. meat substitute sales in the packaged food industry, including frozen and shelf-stable meat alternatives, have risen an average of 15.4% each year between 2013 and 2018, outpacing the 1.2% average annual growth of processed meat over the same period. U.S. meat substitute sales in the packaged food industry, including frozen and shelf-stable meat alternatives, have risen an average of 15.4% each year between 2013 and 2018, outpacing the 1.2% average annual growth of processed meat over the same period.
This is evidenced by fast-food restaurants and grocery chains selling the patties and major food companies such as Cargill Incorporated and Tyson Foods investing in companies that produce these patties. Conagra said that it’s doubling down on its Gardein plant-based meat substitute brand, and its sales have quadrupled over the past four years. Kellogg owned Morningstar has expanded its offerings of products to compete with the growing marketplace.
Concern about ingredients and “Highly Processed.”
Despite the growth, there has been some backlash regarding the patties. Specifically against the Impossible burger with Consumer Reports
questioning the long-term safety of the ingredient, leghemoglobin, which gives the patty its meaty look and feel. Consumer Reports points out that the ingredient is derived from soybean roots and nodules that “have never been part of the human food supply,” and its effects on human health are not known. Impossible Foods contends that the 28-day study conducted by Consumer Reports was insufficient despite it showing changes in the blood chemistries that could indicate kidney problems.
In addition to the ingredient leghemoglobin, Consumer Reports has expressed concern about heme iron. According to the article responding to Rachel Konrad – Impossible Foods’ PR chief, “heme iron may contribute to the increased risk of colon cancer and other health problems that have been associated with red meat.” Konrad contends that heme iron is essential for the body that carries oxygen in your blood.
Consumer Reports is not the only company expressing concern regarding these patties. Both the CEOs of Whole Foods and Chipotle have stated the patties are highly-processed. Kelsey Piper in her article for Vox argues that the term “processed” is vague in context stating, “the term can refer to any food that’s been modified — to preserve it, to enhance its flavor, to add nutrients, or to make plant proteins taste like a hamburger.” Piper defends the plant-based patties by comparing them to the fact that foods that add vitamins or are pasteurized, such as yogurt are highly processed. Therefore, processed foods can also be healthy.
Critics state the patties are highly processed in the fact they contain 21 or 22 ingredients. University of California/Davis professor Frank Mitloehner when speaking to AgriTalk host Chip Flory stated, “that you are hard-pressed in identifying the difference between those items, versus let’s say, pet food.” To illustrate his point, he posted the following on his Twitter account:
(FYI – the middle is the dog food)
To counteract this claim, Konrad made this point on Twitter:
I will counter that the ingredients listed in Konrad’s tweet are naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, lipids, and steroids. Here is a comparison of the Impossible Burger with a beef burger for nutrition:
(image courtesy of https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/impossible-burger#nutrition)
Each has its own benefits, but it should be noted that while the Impossible Burger has more vitamins and minerals, they are added to the product versus a beef burger. Also, the Impossible Burger has a high amount of salt, with 16% of the daily value and carbohydrates.
Update: The Center for Consumer Freedom has launched a campaign calling plant-based patties “ultra-processed imitations”, and comparing them to dog food. Rick Berman, the center’s executive director wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal stating that it was no healthier than meat. The piece can be found here.
Are they good for the planet?
According to Impossible Foods, the company’s burger uses 87% less water, uses 96% less land, and produces 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than ground beef from cows. Beyond Meat, meanwhile, reports its meat uses 99% less water, uses 93% less land and generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, Impossible and Beyond Meat received the United Nations Environment Planetary Health Champion of the Earth Award.
If these studies are true, then it appears to be a boon for the environment. The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems was commissioned by the makers of Beyond Meat to study the environmental impact of the patty to a comparably sized beef patty. They conducted a “cradle to distribution” study with the information provided by its suppliers and a study commissioned by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (Thoma et. Al., 2017). The study found:
Based on a comparative assessment of the current Beyond Burger production system with the 2017 beef LCA by Thoma et al., the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.
However, these facts have come into question. Dr. Mitloehner told CNET
“that we also have to think about the impact on air and water quality when evaluating whether plant-based or animal meat is better for the environment,” Mitloehner says there is not a simple way to determine objectively, which is better. He also notes that U.S. ranchers raise cattle that have the least impact on greenhouse gases compared to other countries, so that could have an impact on the study.
Regardless, if it is better for the environment or there is a question of the safety of the ingredients, these plant-based patties will continue to grow in sales. Despite the NCBA petitioning state legislatures to change the labeling not to read “burger,” these plant-based patties are not going away. The patties are not marketed solely for vegetarians, but also towards meat consumers as an alternative. There is the expression, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Perhaps farmers should consider contracting with some of the processors of the ingredients in these patties by planting more peas, canola and sunflowers for oil.
Update: The Wall Street Journal just published this article regarding the meat industry fighting back against plant-based patties