Plant-based meat: good for me and for the planet?

Demystifying the food product that claims to be healthier and more sustainable

In response to a growing demand for meatless products, the offer of vegetarian “meat” is booming – veggie burgers that mimic the texture, taste and nutritional benefits of red meat, with no ingredients of animal origin. Since the launch of the Impossible Burger in the United States in 2016, many other companies throughout the world followed suit. In Brazil, the concept is now on everyone’s lips, promising to fool even the most carnivores. The promise is daring, arousing everyone’s curiosity. But how is this surprising result achieved, and what does this tell about the product? Is this innovation really the answer to a more conscious consumption, as we’ve been told?

A perfect imitation… of processed meat

The techniques and recipes vary, but one thing is sure: to be able to mimic the taste and texture of meat by using just vegetables demands extensive manipulation and processing of ingredients. Animal-free they may be. Yet, they are not natural.

In the United States, the pioneer Impossible Burger is to this day considered the best vegetarian “meat”, due to its patented “secret ingredient” – heme. This molecule, only found in animals, is responsible for the typical succulence of meat. Using genetic engineering they managed to isolate and replicate the molecule in lab and then inject it in their burgers. That’s why the result is so great. No other competitor has this “heme” ingredient, but yet they managed to create very good burgers using other tricks, such as red beet to get close to the juicy, red aspect of blood. On each of the different recipes, the source of protein usually varies between soy and peas, and the fat comes from coconut or canola.

Along with these main ingredients, many others are added. The list of ingredients for highly processed food like this is usually extensive, as they have been extracted, isolated, manipulated and rearranged to make up the final product. Consequently, the faux meat can fake a burger and other processed food but is far from being “real” meat.

“The Impossible Burger contains Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12” 

Plant-based brands back up the surprise effect using the idea of a more conscious consumption

Future, Incredible, Rebel Whopper, Impossible, Beyond – the names chosen by the brands are an obvious bet on the fascination exerted by innovation. But after the first bite the surprise subsidies and the consumers seek more significant benefits. We observe that most brands sell the idea of a “better” consumption for individuals or for the planet.

Impossible proudly advocates that, with the consumption of this kind of product, we, as human beings, are taking a step towards a better future. Making use of the image of an astronaut, the brand implies that the impossible, a science fiction thing, is now real. “Save the world, eat a burger”, one of the taglines used, points to responsible consumption as a result of the technology created.

The Brazilian start-up Futuro has introduced veg burgers in the restaurant Lanchonete da Cidade and in supermarkets, announcing the quality of the ingredients used and the burger’s delicious taste, while its modern and urban look conveys the feeling that the plant-based burger is an updated version of the traditional meat.

Beyond calls itself the “future of protein”, a message that blends conscious consumption with personal growth, as if becoming a vegetarian would make one a better person.

But Burger King has made the most noise in the last weeks about its “100% plant-based” Rebel Whopper available only in São Paulo at the moment. In the commercial, young people savor the Whopper imagining it is the same as always, and then they discover that in fact it is not. It is a self-challenge, and a helping hand for vegans, that now have an option for their trash moments!

None of the brands declare explicitly that they are healthy, but many flirt with the idea through the visual identity, in messages such as “100% vegetable” and “plant-based”, and by using images of leaves and green seals. Who does not associate vegetables and plants with good health? All brands take advantage of the good reputation that veganism has earned lately, being regarded as a synonym for a healthy lifestyle, with several documentaries at Netflix catching on this idea.

However, behind the brand communication, how sustainable and healthy these plant-based products really are?

Not so good for me, not so good for the planet

As we have seen, Impossible presents this technology as a great solution for the future. Indeed, we are only beginning to see this kind of product. In the United States, Just has launched vegan scrambled eggs that look and taste exactly as the original, and is investing in high quality veggie meat. Millions are being invested, start-ups are blooming, large companies are coming into play. But is this really the perfect solution for our planet? We already know that it is crucial to eat less meat. But these plant-based products that try to replicate the experience that only meat products provide cause several ethical dilemmas, as some see them as a stimulus to shift from real food to processed and artificial food.

Paola Carosella and Rita Lobo, on the front line, uttering strong statements in social media, favor the idea that “in case you are a vegan, you should eat real vegetables instead of trying to replicate something that does not exist”. If we follow that line of reasoning, the plant-based products are a way found by industry to encourage the continuous purchase of expensive semi-prepared industrialized food, moving away from real food. Sure, it is a vegan option, however a processed one, instead of a chance of teaching people to free themselves from industrialized products, of learning to cook, of taking control of their own diet.

The claims highlighting the protein and its nutritious qualities are a solution for the dilemma faced by many wannabe vegetarians, who are afraid of not getting enough protein. But the source of the protein is not always made clear, it can come from soy, for example, whose healthiness in Brazil is highly questionable.

A more sustainable future involves not only the reduction of meat consumption, but also wider issues, such as educating the population to eat with awareness, enabling people to cook simple meals without having to rely on food that is impossible to replicate at home.

Plant-based meat brands must be responsible and transparent

he human capacity of doing the impossible is the most amazing fact about these new vegetarian “meat” products. I suggest trying them, as an alternative for meatless products.

However, to imagine that this is what the future holds is more scaring than positive. The consumption of this kind of food, like any ultra-processed food product, must be careful. When educating people to eat less meat, there should be a joint effort to raise food and cooking awareness. For this reason, brands should be very transparent and careful before claiming that those products are healthy or sustainable just because they are vegan.

Carmen Beer, Senior Strategist.

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