We’ve been hearing a lot these days about fake burgers; the publicity machines are whirring away to ensure favorable reviews in the media. The call to embrace these ersatz products aims not so much at vegetarians and vegans, but at “lessetarians,” those interested in cutting back on meat. Meat alternatives now constitute about 5 percent of meat sales, and experts are predicting rapid growth during the next few years, similar to the growth of non-dairy “milks.”
The same arguments used to promote earlier generations of “tasteless puck” like bean-and-mushroom patties are helping boost sales for the new products: “Eat our fake food and you’ll be healthier and save the planet.” Unfortunately, the new-generation fake foods are even faker than their predecessors, containing highly manipulated proteins, factory starches, artificial flavors and other questionable ingredients.
All the chic arguments are on display for laboratory-produced meat or lab meat. Sometimes also called “unmeat,” “cultured meat” or even “clean meat,” lab-grown meat is produced by culturing animal tissue. “Save the planet bite by bite” is one of the PR slogans. If we eat lab meat instead of real meat, the marketers claim, we’ll save the land from desecration by cattle, cut down on water use, protect the air from methane-filled cow farts and forestall global warming. Enthusiasts tell us that lab meat would also be kinder because no animals would be killed.
As one puff piece puts it: “Livestock farming is a known contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and deforestation, and a huge consumer of water, energy, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The production of meat through tissue culture could have immense effects in reducing the environmental impact of our agriculture system, minimizing threats to public health, addressing issues of animal welfare, and providing food security. Cultured meat represents the crucial first step in finding a sustainable alternative to meat production.”1
Proponents claim even more benefits: lab meat could be made on demand in poor countries that can’t afford refrigeration, making “unmeat an enormous boon for energy-poor developing regions.” And lab meat could provide “very soft and tender meat for elderly people.” Lab meat would be healthier, too, because it could be engineered to contain less saturated fat and heme iron, and more omega-3 fatty acids.2
According to the Australian Julian Savulescu, described as a “bioethicist,” “Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.”3
A dirty little secret about lab meat is that the cells need a nutrient-rich “serum” in which to grow. For animal cells, the serum comprises sugars (probably derived from corn), amino acids (probably made in China, and usually made out of corn or soybeans) and animal blood. The blood that all lab-grown meat so far requires is a product called fetal bovine serum or FBS. FBS is a byproduct made from the blood of cow fetuses. If a cow coming for slaughter happens to be pregnant (often the case with dairy cows), the cow is killed and bled, and then the fetus is removed from the womb and brought into a blood collection room. There, the still living fetus gets a needle inserted into its heart. It takes about five minutes for the fetus to die while its blood drains away. Technicians then refine the blood to make FBS. Since the demand for FBS is high (it’s used for other purposes, such as making vaccines), millions of bovine fetuses meet their end in this cruel way. Does this really represent an “ethical two thumbs up”?
Recognizing this problem, a company called Meatable says it has figured out how to make a serum from stem cells taken from umbilical cords, called pluripotent stem cells. But other lab meat start-up companies have avoided using pluripotent stem cells because they are hard to control in a lab environment. Meatable has raised more than three million dollars so far to prove that it can live up to its claims.
Arguments for lab meat capitalize on the fact that factory production of beef (and other animal foods, from pigs to fish) is an abomination; basically, modern agriculture has turned the sacred cow into a receptacle for corn—which suits the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just fine because its mandate is to sell grain, not to promote any kind of rational agricultural policy. The result is vast monocropped fields poisoned with Roundup and other noxious chemicals and requiring huge amounts of water, along with animals crowded together in feedlots, creating a festering environmental nightmare.
All of the hype about lab meat begs the question; why not just eat meat from animals humanely slaughtered rather than promote a processed product tied to so much suffering? The real answer to the crazy factory farm system is to put our animals back on pasture eating the food they were designed to eat, using portable electric fencing to move them daily to new pasture. A pasture-based grazing system maximizes soil fertility and hastens the creation of topsoil. The Earth has millions of acres available to raise livestock this way, most of which cannot support the production of grains or produce. Properly raised, beef is the most environmentally friendly meat, because—unlike poultry, fish or pigs—beef animals will grow well without any grain whatsoever. The only water they need is the water they drink—which is much less per pound of beef than what’s needed to produce a loaf of bread. But why mention such a sensible solution when you’ve got grant money to develop lab meat?
Will lab meat require less energy to produce than real meat, so that it “could be made on demand in poor countries that can’t afford refrigeration?” One skeptic, Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, speculates that the energy and fossil fuel requirements of large-scale cultured meat production may be more environmentally destructive than producing food off the land.4 The bioreactors needed to produce lab meat require a lot of energy, as does the production of sugars and amino acids for the growth serum. Sorry, but I don’t think that lab meat is a priority for “countries that can’t afford refrigeration.” These countries need live animals on small farms, so that they can collect eggs, milk and meat from the land and eat them immediately.
By the way, a good question to ask is whether lab meat will require more corn than feedlot beef? My guess is that the amount will be similar. Moreover, all that corn will be sprayed with Roundup and other chemicals. No one is making the claim that lab meat will be organic.
Furthermore, it would be a mistake to assume that lab meat is a clean product free of antibiotics and other harmful chemicals. In addition to FBS, the serum in which the cells are grown often contains antibiotics. One report touts cultured (lab) meats as sterile and therefore requiring “much less nitrate” to stay safe to eat, but wait a minute! If I eat a steak or hamburger from a grass-fed steer, it will contain neither antibiotics nor nitrates. Cultured meat production also requires a preservative, such as sodium benzoate, to protect the growing meat from yeast and fungus. Other items used in different ways during the manufacturing process may include nonorganic or GMO-derived collagen powder, xanthan gum, mannitol and cochineal.
Will lab meat products contain vitamins B12 or B6, or serve as a rich source of zinc and iron—as real beef does? No information on this question is forthcoming.
Proponents of lab meat claim that it could be healthier than beef if they engineer the product to remove the heme iron or to contain more omega-3 fatty acids. However, without heme iron, the product would be yellow, not red, and would require food coloring. Too much omega-3 would give the meat a fishy flavor. Lab meat fabricators do add fat to make the product tender and juicy, but what kind of fat? It’s not grass-fed beef tallow, for sure! The added fat most likely is some kind of hardened industrial seed oil, or possibly coconut oil.
And that brings us to the subject of flavor. In spite of glowing reviews, the stuff just doesn’t taste very good—“metallic” is one description for it. However, according to Marie Gibbons, a researcher from North Carolina State University working on cultured meat production, there is “no limit” to what scientists eventually could do with flavor. “There’s no doubt that [cultured products] can be manipulated to achieve good flavour—it’s just a case of what chemicals react with your taste buds,” she says. She thinks cultured meats could eventually be “tastier” than traditional meat, but those tastes will likely be added after production in the form of MSG and other artificial flavors.5
One thing for sure, lab meat ain’t cheap. The first cultured beef burger patty, created by Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University and eaten with a Steve Jobs-like flourish at a demonstration in August 2013, cost over three hundred thousand dollars to make. One company claims that it has gotten the cost down to just over eleven dollars per pound, still too expensive to compete with real meat. But that hasn’t deterred investment in more university research and dozens of start-ups. Many university laboratories from around the world are working on cultured meat research, and there are over thirty start-up companies in the field, all flush with investor money and enthusiasm.
For example, a company called JUST (founded in 2012 as Hampton Creek, which produced such failed vegan products as Just Mayo) has about one hundred thirty employees and a research department of fifty-five scientists developing lab-produced poultry, pork and beef. They have received funding from Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang and Heineken International, among others.
Seems like investors are just lining up to throw their dollars at technology’s latest thing. But I have a prediction for them. Lab meat will be no more successful than soy burgers or Just Mayo. People today want real food, and vegans are mostly too poor to afford highly processed food like “cultured” meat. But meanwhile, lab meat is a good way to separate a lot of dot-com millionaire fools from their money.
BIG YAWN BURGERS
The Beyond Burger, manufactured by the Beyond Meat company, advertises itself as “the world’s first 100% plant-based burger that looks, cooks and satisfies like ground beef.”
The ingredients: pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality) and vegetable glycerin.
The company has made a few changes, according to a Washington Post article6 amusingly titled “Little flecks of ’fat’ put Beyond Meat’s burger a big step closer to beef.” The changes include adding bits of cocoa butter, mung bean and rice proteins, and apple extract (so that it browns better when cooked), which “improves the taste and texture of the burgers.”
A few national restaurant chains and grocery stores already sell Beyond Burgers. The Silver Diner uses the Beyond Burger glop for burgers and meatballs, with a vegan meatloaf coming soon. With all the hype, the Beyond Meat stock price has soared, up to over one hundred eighty dollars per share since its twenty-five-dollars-per-share initial public offering (IPO).
Is the Beyond Burger healthy and safe to eat? According to blogger David Gumpert, “I know many people here hate the idea of artificial-any-food, but I take a different view. So long as it’s made from healthy and natural products—in this case, a variety of plant items—I say go for it, if there’s a market for it. From all I can tell, Beyond Meat is much healthier than any of the meats put out by the Big Ag companies with their antibiotic-laden products from their polluting CAFOs.”7
Are Beyond Meat burgers made with “healthy and natural products?” Let’s take a look, starting with pea protein isolate. Here’s a description of how it’s made:
The isoelectric precipitation process for pea protein isolate production consists in milling of the peas, solubilization of the proteins in 30 – 50°C water adjusted to pH 8 to 11 with a base, followed by centrifugation to remove the insoluble components. Starting material for the protein solubilization step can also be the pea residue resulting from the starch extraction process. The pea proteins present in the supernatant are then precipitated out at their isoelectric pH (4.2 to 4.5) by addition of a mineral acid, and they are recuperated by a second centrifugation step. The curd is suspended in water to remove the sugars and minerals and after reconcentration by applying a third centrifugation step, it is neutralized to pH 7 with a dilute base and dried using a spray-dryer to produce an isolate. [. . .] The isolates produced by isoelectric precipitation have poor solubility possibly due to protein denaturation and to their high phytic acid content which alters the solubility of plant protein isolates especially at low pH. This process also requires a large amount of water (extraction, washing of the curd and neutralization steps) and generates significant volume of effluents (isoelectric precipitation and washing steps) making it more or less attractive from an
environmental point of view.8
Note that this process denatures the proteins and contains a high phytic acid content. Phytic acid blocks the uptake of important minerals like iron and zinc, already low in pea protein. (A regular burger contains a lot of zinc and iron, and in forms that are easily absorbed, not blocked by phytic acid.) Mung bean and rice protein isolates are manufactured in a similar fashion.
More importantly, the peas have not gone through the critical process of soaking and cooking, which gets rid of pesky tannins and enzyme inhibitors, so expect digestive distress if you are eating a lot of Beyond Burgers (or maybe even one).
Making protein isolates also requires a large amount of water, generating a “significant volume of effluents.” In other words, like beef raised in CAFOs, you need a lot of water to make a Beyond Burger, and the runoff is polluting.
The main oil used in Beyond Burgers is canola oil, which is bound to be GMO and loaded with glyphosate. And remember that glyphosate is an antibiotic, every bit as harmful to your gut flora as the antibiotics given to cattle in feed lots.
There’s nothing wrong with the coconut oil—probably the only “healthy and natural” ingredient in the Beyond Burger.
A total of eight ingredients—yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, succinic acid (made with genetically engineered organisms), acetic acid, beet juice extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality) and apple extract—provide flavor components, and all are likely to contain free glutamic acid, otherwise known as MSG. A burger made with real meat gives us that real umami taste with the simple addition of salt.
With all these strange ingredients, it’s comforting to know that the modified food starch is non-GMO. . . . However, I do wonder about the inclusion of cellulose from bamboo and methylcellulose—humans can’t even digest cellulose! Another chance for digestive distress after a Beyond Burger meal.
Bottom line: there’s nothing to celebrate in Beyond Burgers—they’re made of the same ole’, same ole’ combination of isolated proteins, industrial seed oils and MSG-laden flavorings. Better to call them Big Yawn Burgers. The one innovation is the beet juice extract, to make the burgers look like they’re bleeding. Let’s stock up for Halloween!
While Beyond Meat stock shares have climbed and climbed, I predict that we will now see a slow decline as people realize that this yucky stuff is no better than the original “tasteless puck” veggie burgers. Maybe folks will get a warm and fuzzy good feeling about saving the environment, but that may soon evaporate with the tummy ache and headache (from all the MSG) that are bound to follow.
IMPOSSIBLE BURGERS—SOY DISGUSTING
A final fake meat product to hit the market is the Impossible Burger, made from genetically modified soy protein concentrate. Impossible Foods CEO and founder Pat Brown makes his commitment to GM soy and his long-term agenda clear in a recent press release:9
We sought the safest and most environmentally responsible option that would allow us to scale our production and provide the Impossible Burger to consumers at a reasonable cost. And the unambiguous winner was American-grown, milled and processed GM soy that meets the highest global standards for health, safety and sustainability. [emphasis in the original]
This choice allows us to continue making a product that rivals beef for flavor, texture, nutrition and versatility. And it keeps Impossible Foods on target to achieve our mission: to end the use of animals in food production by 2035, halting and reversing its catastrophic impact on climate, land, water and the ongoing meltdown in biodiversity.
According to Brown, we face a wildlife holocaust caused by animal agriculture.
In a recent TED talk, Brown reveals the typical viewpoint of today’s scientists—life “evolved” by chance so there are mistakes, but we clever wizards can fix them. Animals are an unsustainable technology for transforming plants into meat, he asserts. It sounds “insane,” says Brown, but humans making meat from plants “has to be done,” and “we’re going to do it better.”10 This doesn’t sound insane, it is insane.
Here’s the list of ingredients in the Impossible Burger: water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2 percent 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.
How is soy protein concentrate made? As far as I can tell, the manufacturing process does not involve a lot of heat, and therein lies the problem. There’s probably no food that contains more antinutrients than soy, and without heat applied in the processing, they will largely remain—actually will be hugely concentrated—in the soy protein concentrate.
The antinutritional factors in soybeans include:
• Protease inhibitors (inhibit protein digestion, cause swelling of the pancreas)
• Saponins (cause agglomeration of red blood cells)
• Lectins (interfere with digestion)
• Estrogens (cause hormone disruption)
• Goitrogens (depress thyroid function)
• Cyanogens (degrade to cyanide in the digestive tract)
• Phytate (blocks mineral assimilation)
• Oligosaccharides (indigestible for humans, cause diarrhea and flatulence)
• Antigens (cause allergic reactions).
Processing may reduce the levels of some of these compounds, but never all of them. They are there in spades—along with lots of glyphosate residues—in a product that Brown has the effrontery to call “healthy” and “safe.” An analysis by Moms Across America found that the Impossible Burger tests eleven times higher for glyphosate weed killer residue than the Beyond Meat burger, made from non-GMO peas.11
But back to the ingredients. You’ll notice that the Impossible Burger contains fewer flavoring ingredients than the Beyond Burger, just yeast extract and natural flavors, to give the product a meaty, umami taste. However, another source of the Impossible Burger’s meaty taste—and of its red-colored beefy appearance and tendency to “bleed”—is soy leghemoglobin, described as follows:
Soy leghemoglobin is short for legume hemoglobin—the hemoglobin found in soy, a leguminous plant. Leghemoglobin is a protein found in plants that carries heme, an iron-containing molecule that is essential for life. Heme is found in every living being—both plants and animals. (Heme in animals is carried by “hemoglobin”and “myoglobin” among other proteins.) [. . .] We make the Impossible Burger using heme from soy plants—identical to the heme from animals—which is what gives it its uniquely meaty flavor. . .. Back in our research days, we used to harvest leghemoglobin directly from the roots of soy plants. But we soon realized that in order to make enough plant-based heme to feed the world—and avoid the destructive environmental impact of animal agriculture—we would need to make it using fermentation. The heme in Impossible Burger is made using a yeast engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin. First, we grow yeast via fermentation. Then, we isolate the soy leghemoglobin (containing heme) from the yeast, and add it to the Impossible Burger, where it combines with other micronutrients to create delicious, meaty flavor.12
Is soy leghemoglobin safe? According to the Institute for Responsible Science, when Impossible Foods originally submitted the product to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency refused to grant it GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status, noting that soy leghemoglobin has never been in the human food supply and lacks adequate safety testing. Furthermore, the testing that has been done identified forty-seven additional uncharacterized, unintended and untested proteins in the fermentation brew. In addition, soy leghemoglobin may contain many potentially dangerous metabolites and compounds.13
And there’s another possible problem with soy leghemoglobin: will the body be able to incorporate the manufactured heme into the blood, or will it shunt the heme to storage in the liver, causing problems like hemochromatosis?
Brown insists that his product is perfectly safe and can provide an adequate substitute for meat. It’s a pity he did not interview some of the men in the Illinois prisons before he started his fundraising efforts—he’s raised four hundred million dollars to date from tech billionaires like Bill Gates. Between 2003 and 2018, these Illinois inmates received a “planet-saving” diet virtually devoid of meat but loaded with imitation foods containing soy protein isolate and soy protein concentrate, with naked soy flour added to the baked goods. (Only the men got the soy diet; the women stopped menstruating after just a few months, so the Department of Corrections eliminated the soy and gave them meat again.) Some of the health problems suffered by the men included horrible digestive problems, such as pain after eating, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, flatulence and gas (remember, these are men living in close quarters); debilitating thyroid problems; heart arrythmias; growth of breasts (called bitch tits); and erectile dysfunction (called chemical castration).
True, the soy the prisoners got did not “bleed” like the Impossible Burger, but the men did a lot of bleeding, mostly in the form of bloody diarrhea. Burger King has debuted Impossible Burgers in a few locations and promises to have them soon in every restaurant. But as one of our prison friends puts it, “Going to a fast food joint for a veggie burger is like going to your favorite prostitute for a hug.”
The Impossible Burger won’t prevent a wildlife holocaust—on the contrary. The monocropping of soy is killing animals and prompting loss of biodiversity. While objecting to the environmental damage caused by industrial livestock production, writer Anna Lappé observes that “just because [a meat substitute] is not meat, doesn’t mean it’s a planetary panacea.”14 Lappé points to new evidence that “we are teetering on the edge of an era of massive extinction, propelled in large part by the very pesticides and practices used with genetically engineered crops like that soy destined for Impossible Burgers.” Lappé also reminds us of the 1,345 percent increase in the amount of glyphosate used on GMO crops like soy between 1990 and 2014 (from about eight million pounds applied in 1990 to two hundred and fifty million pounds used in 2014).
In other words, the soy-laden Impossible Burger could lead to a human holocaust. Fortunately, it won’t take long for folks to figure out that the Impossible Burger is just a creepy revival of the push to sell soy, the most toxic product in agriculture.
1. Cultured meat. Maastricht University. https://culturedbeef.org/.
2. Thompson C. Embrace a fake-meat future for its lesser-known benefits. Wired, Dec. 17, 2018.
3. Jha A. Synthetic meat: how the world’s costliest burger made it on to the plate. The Guardian, Aug. 5, 2013.
4. Levine K. Lab-grown meat a reality, but who will eat it? NPR, May 20, 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90235492.
5. Ireland T. The artificial meat factory—the science of your synthetic supper. Science Focus, May 23, 2019.
6. Judkis M. Beyond Meat’s latest plant-based burger is meatier, juicier and a big step closer to beef. The Washington Post, June 25, 2019.
7. Gumpert D. Exploding fake-meat market: capitalism’s solution for CAFO, antibiotics problems? May 5, 2019. https://www.davidgumpert.com/exploding-fake-meat-market-capitalisms-solution-for-cafo-antibiotics-problems.
9. Brown P. How our commitment to consumers and our planet led us to use GM soy. Medium, May 16, 2019.
10. Brown P. Saving the planet takes straying from the herd. TEDMED, June 30, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD3O8tOZ5sc.
11. Honeycutt Z. GMO Impossible Burger positive for carcinogenic glyphosate. Moms Across America, May 16, 2019.
12. What is soy leghemoglobin, or heme? https://faq.impossiblefoods.com/hc/en-us/articles/360019100553-What-is-soy-leghemoglobin-or-heme-.
13. Friends don’t let friends eat the Impossible Burger. https://responsibletechnology.salsalabs.org/impossibleburgerpetition/index.html.
14. Lappé A. Impossible Foods, impossible claims. Medium, July 22, 2019.
15. Impossible Foods IPO vs. Beyond Meat IPO. May 15, 2019. https://www.nasdaq.com/article/impossible-foods-ipo-now-looks-inevitable-cm1149822.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2019