Where’s the beef? Maybe in the garden!

Plant-based meat may someday have a revolutionary effect on our eating habits … but right now … don’t bet the farm on it.

The A&W Beyond Meat burger. (Graham Hicks/Postmedia Network)

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Have you tried the meatless burger yet? What started slowly as a niche industry is now enjoying boom times! Many fast-food chains now include meatless burgers on their menus. This past spring, Beyond Meat, one of the leading players in the “meatless” meat industry (the other one is Impossible Meat) went public. Their stock initially sold for $25 per share. Its price on the NASDAQ stock exchange recently went over the $144-per-share mark. Seems like those Beyond Meat people have discovered a previously untapped desire among consumers to cut down on their meat consumption.

According to an article by Kelsey Piper in the Internet news site Vox (her article supplied me with the facts of the case), nine-billion animals are raised and slaughtered for their meat every year in the U.S. (In Canada the figure is 700 million.) This massive consumption of meat has led to certain problems, including increased antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans.

In the factory-farming industry, most animals are given antibiotics to counter the outbreak of disease. For instance, if one animal in a herd becomes ill, the entire herd is sometimes treated with antibiotics. And as a preventative measure, herds are sometimes treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics, even if there is no evidence of illness.

The manure from these herds, which is stored in lagoons on the farm and used on crops, frequently contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Also, according to Piper’s study, raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It also uses about 70 per cent of available agricultural land and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution. And consumers seem to be aware of these figures and appear eager to try to do something about cutting meat consumption.

When we talk about meatless meat, we are definitely not referring to veggie burgers, which have been around for ages, don’t really try to taste like meat and are primarily aimed at vegetarians.

But let’s face it, folks … we are dyed-in-the-wool meat-eaters. Otherwise we wouldn’t need incisors, those sharp teeth at the front which are designed to tear into flesh (sorry vegetarians. … but I’m talking now of biological engineering, not philosophical preference.)

So, this next-generation of plant-based “meat” is really designed for meat-eaters and the main goal for the people behind this new food movement is to ensure their products have the flavour, macronutrient balance and cooking experience of real meat.

Burger King’s Impossible Whopper famously “bleeds,” thanks to a meat protein called heme which the company produces from yeast.

I recently sampled a meatless burger at one of our local fast-food restaurants. It was delicious! I had a hard time convincing myself that I wasn’t eating meat. I felt so superior, enjoying the unmistakable taste of meat without the attendant guilt over the health concerns of eating red meat and the possibility that I was contributing to global warming.

According to news reports, this surge in interest in plant-based meats shows the average consumer is increasingly concerned over health and sustainability when it comes to meat.

But is eating plant-based meat really healthier than real meat?

Vegetables are good for you, right? So it follows that eating plant-based meat must be equally good for you.

But that’s not necessarily so.

As Piper points out in her article, plant-based meat, although absolutely safe, is not a health food.

Ricardo San Martin, who studies meat alternatives at the University of California at Berkeley, says the health assumptions about meatless meat are a misconception.

“Plant-based means it’s made from ingredients that come from plants,” but that doesn’t mean it’s like eating salad! The plant ingredients in meatless meat are highly processed and most likely are less healthy than eating unprocessed veggies.

And then there are the environmental issues. Plant-based meat may very well save the environment someday. You have to feed an animal 10 calories of plants to make one calorie of meat, so plant-based meat leaves about one-tenth the carbon footprint of animal-based foods.

But right now, meatless meat makes up less than one percent of the meat industry, so it’s too early to hail the new product as Mother Nature’s lifesaver.

As emerging economies become wealthier their tastes tend to become more Westernized … e.g. more meat. And demand for meat actually grew last year, so avid environmentalists should hold off on those champagne-infused celebrations.

Plant-based meat may someday have a revolutionary effect on our eating habits … but right now … don’t bet the farm on it.