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The Promise and Problem of Fake Meat

It could help improve public health and reduce climate change. But questions remain about the highly processed food—and some producers' coziness with the "real meat" industry.


We have a meat problem. It’s a key driver of the climate crisis, drinking water pollution, and land overuse. And excessive consumption of factory-raised and processed meat increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

You probably know all this, but you still eat meat. Most of us do. Why is that?

According to the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, humans experience extreme stress when there is an inconsistency between our beliefs (“Meat-eating is bad”) and our behaviors (“I like eating meat”). Our brains resolve the dissonance by altering either our beliefs or our behavior. “It is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior,” Leon Festinger, the theory’s originator, once wrote. So most humans, even those who know that meat-eating is bad, make excuses for their behavior rather than adhering to their beliefs and giving up meat.

That’s a problem for our personal health, and that of the planet. But what if we could have it both ways? What if we could eat meat without the consequences?

That’s the big idea behind Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. The competing food companies, which have grown rapidly over the past year, might be famous for creating vegetarian burgers that look, taste, and bleed like beef. But that’s not all they’re trying to do. They’re also trying to change the world by changing what society believes meat to be. In a way, it’s a scientific solution to the cognitive dissonance of eating meat.

“If we insist meat be defined by origin—namely poultry, pigs and cows—we face limited choices,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown wrote in a shareholder letter last month. “But if we define meat by composition and structure—amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, and water woven together in the familiar assembly of muscle, or meat—we can innovate toward a solution.” Impossible Foods’ strategy is similar. The company, according to a recent feature in Engadget, “needs society to discard a fundamental cultural idea that dates back millennia and accept a new truth: Meat doesn’t have to come from animals.”

If humans can accept that, Brown wrote, then “we can provide meat that delivers health benefits and environmental upside (90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy) and side steps the animal welfare issue.” Humans today will become “the first generation ... to separate meat from animals, unlocking the next era in the American story of innovation, disruption, and growth.”

The idea is appealing in its simplicity, and appears to be working. Beyond Meat’s products are now sold in the meat section at more than 35,000 grocery stores nationwide, and Impossible’s products are sold at more than 7,000 restaurants, including fast-food chains like Burger King. Beyond Meat’s IPO was the most successful of 2019 so far, giving the company a market value of $3.77 billion. Impossible Foods, a private company, is valued at about $2 billion.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have the potential to help solve one of the stickiest problems in the climate fight. But amid all the excitement about that potential, there’s been little analysis of the problems these companies could create. After all, their products are highly processed and scientifically engineered food. Might different health problems emerge from a large-scale replacement of meat, which, for all its problems, is still a whole food? Also, the global “real meat” industry is investing in plant-based companies. Should we trust the same industry that caused our health and environmental woes to help solve them?

Traditional meat products usually have one ingredient. These newfangled meatish products are more complicated. The Impossible Burger has 21 ingredients, and the Beyond Burger has 22. Impossible’s main contents are soy protein isolate, sunflower oil, and coconut oil; Beyond’s are pea protein isolate, coconut oil, and canola oil. The oil in each product is supposed to mimic beef’s fat content; the soy and pea proteins mimic the protein content. Both plant-based burgers contain water, salt, and the binding agent methylcellulose. Both are gluten-free.

The most notable ingredient-related difference is that Impossible uses genetically modified soy protein, drawing criticism from anti-GMO groups. Impossible also uses genetically modified soy leghemoglobin—also known as “heme”—which gives the burger its meaty flavor and red, blood-like drippings. Heme wasn’t considered safe for consumption by the FDA until last summer, and Impossible still must go through the regulatory process for getting heme approved as a color additive, which will be required if the company wants to sell the uncooked patty in grocery stores.

Controversy over heme aside, consumers can at least take comfort in the fact that they know what fake meat is made out of. What they can’t be confident in is exactly how it is made. It’s pretty clear how a cow becomes a hamburger. But Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods consider their specific recipes and production methods to be trade secrets. What we do know is that Impossible makes its own burgers, and Beyond Meat does not.

If Beyond Meat did manufacturer its own products, it might have had to disclose some of its production methods when it went public earlier this year. But the company did have to disclose who makes its plant-based patties. According to the IPO filing, its products are made by two ground beef manufacturers: California-based CLW Foods LLC and Georgia-based FLP Food LLC. Neither CLW or FLP has ever publicized its affiliation with Beyond Meat; their websites advertise beef production only. And neither company has a written contract with Beyond to produce the Beyond Burger, the filing stated. They operate via a handshake agreement.

It’s a curious arrangement, and it illustrates the traditional meat industry’s longstanding interest in fake meat’s success. “Since 2015, global meat giants from Tyson to Cargill have invested in high-momentum, animal-free protein startups seeking to upend the traditional meat industry,” reads a report last year from CB Insights, a research firm that specializes in startups. Indeed, Cargill, the world’s third-largest meat producer, is investing in pea protein for plant-based meat. Tyson and PWH, one of Europe’s largest chicken producers, have invested in Beyond Meat—and Tyson recently exited its investment to start its own plant-based meat brand. Last fall, Perdue Farms announced it is also looking into its own line of plant-based products.

They have good reason to. According to Euromonitor International data, the entire meat substitute market is worth about $1.44 billion, and expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2023. Big meat companies want to tap into that—especially since, according to Beyond Meat’s IPO filing, plant-based alternative meats have the potential to soon take up 13 percent of the meat industry, just as plant-based milks now make up 13 percent of the milk industry. That would surely mean huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the meat sector.

But big meat companies—some of which which emit nearly as much carbon as oil companies like ExxonMobil—don’t intend to be replaced. They plan to use their investments to keep their core business growing. “This isn’t an ‘either or’ scenario,” Tyson CEO Tom Hayes said of his decision to launch a competing plant-based meat brand. “It’s a ‘yes and’ scenario.”

Perhaps we should apply different standards to the meat and fossil fuel industries. They may be two of the largest contributors to the climate crisis, but meat, unlike oil, is something most us regularly touch, feel, and taste. It’s personal, and thus much harder to demonize than fossil fuels.

It makes sense, too, why Americans might believe that the answer to the meat problem lies in a scientific lab, rather than in our stomachs. Science has long driven the modern food industry. When our diets were too high in fat and cholesterol, food scientists created low-fat products. When we lacked vitamins, scientists invented nutrient fortification. We are, as Michael Pollan argued in In Defense of Food, “nutritionists”—people who believe “that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components,” and that if we can simply create foods that have better nutritional profiles, we will be healthier.

Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger do have better nutritional profiles than beef burgers: Less calories, more protein, less fat. Compared to a 4-ounce beef burger with 20 percent fat content, a Beyond burger has 20 fewer calories, 3 fewer grams of fat, and one more gram of protein. An Impossible Burger has 50 fewer calories, 8 fewer grams of fat; and the same amount of protein. Both plant-based burgers have no cholesterol, compared to 80 milligrams in a beef burger. And both have more fiber, essential for bowel regularity. Combine that with the large body of research linking meat consumption to disease risk, and you have a pretty convincing case that the world’s health would be better off if we replaced traditional meat with these products.

But that case only works if you ignore the large body of evidence that processed food consumption contributes just as much, if not more, to obesity, cancer, and other disease risk. The most convincing piece of evidence, laid out in Pollan’s book, is that people who eat a Western diet—made up of 60 percent processed foods—are uniformly unhealthier than people who eat diets made up of mostly whole foods. Even when the whole foods are high-calorie, high-fat, or high-meat, Pollan shows, the people who eat them are still less obese and less disease-ridden than Americans.

The evidence is not just anecdotal. In the last month alone, the National Institutes of Health released a landmark study showing that America’s obesity epidemic is driven primarily by ultra-processed foods, and two large European studies linked ultra-processed food consumption to cardiovascular disease and death. While we may not not know exactly how Impossible or Beyond burgers are made, they clearly fall into the ultra-processed category. They were literally created in scientific labs. Their proteins are isolates, extracted mechanically from whole soy and peas. Their fats are industrial vegetable and seed oils.

In fact, companies like Impossible and Beyond have arguably created a new, higher tier of ultra-processed food. As Engadget noted, “A Cheeto or Twinkie is unambiguously synthetic.” But these fake-meat products are engineered, specifically, to fool our senses into thinking they’re whole foods—and then marketed, by meat companies, to change our language to reflect the trick. This is nutritionism at its finest, and its success so far reflects the lengths we will go to avoid changing our behavior: We would rather change the entire definition of meat to include something we know isn’t meat, rather than eat less of it to save the planet and ourselves.