For years, anyone looking into a healthier way to eat has been advised against the consumption of overly processed foods. Everything from hotdogs to luncheon meats to snack foods has been branded as unhealthy. But now we are faced with a dilemma. What about all those so-called “fake” meats currently available? Surely nothing can take more processing than turning a soybean into a hamburger. So, is there good processing and bad processing? And just what does the health food industry think of faux cows?
Meat substitutes have been around for a very long time. Tofu was invented in China two hundred years before the birth of Christ. Wheat gluten has been used since about the seventh century. The rise of Buddhism in the eastern hemisphere, along with its dietary restrictions, lead to an even greater interest in finding a substitute source of protein. Nowadays, the general idea of developing a meat substitute is to match the texture and taste of the original as closely as possible. Today’s fake meats are most often composed of soy, but may also involve pea protein, wheat gluten, mycoprotein, and the like. Anything which can provide the necessary protein usually found in the meat we consume. And the modern consumer is much more concerned with the taste. Not only must the product provide the nutrients contained in a hamburger, but it must also look, feel, and taste like one, too. This doesn’t happen without a considerable amount of processing.
The two leading manufacturers of faux meat products have been criticized for the marketing and makeup of their products. Dieticians point out that the product may be no healthier than the meat it is replacing, due to the over-abundance of sodium as a result of the manufacturing process. A comparison of the Impossible Whopper and the regular Whopper indicates a difference of only 30 calories, while the saturated fat and sodium content is essentially the same. It seems you would be better off consuming a real burger made with lean meat.
Remember that most of us tend to think of meat substitutes in terms of burgers. This is because we have been inundated with marketing campaigns about these products. And they do taste really good, virtually identical to the meat products they replace. But that tasty looking burger is not the only meat substitute out there, There are vegan hot dogs, sausages, turkey, and chicken. And not all of these are any healthier than the original meats, due to chemicals and processes used in their production. Meat substitutes have a long history, but the reasons for their development in modern times may be vastly different from those in ancient times. And the products themselves are different. Ancient fakes were made from naturally occurring substances such as soybeans, mushrooms, and other organic items, with spices used to change and enhance the flavor. Today, companies strive to make the fake as close as possible to the real deal, duplicating flavor and texture as much as possible. And this may require a much more extensive manufacturing process, and the addition of certain chemicals to enhance that process, as well as preservatives to extend shelf life. But none of this necessarily means that faux meats are any less healthy than real meats. And just how sure are you that you are consuming real meats, anyway?
In the developed world, about half of all meat consumed is in the form of Processed meat products, such as hot dogs, sausages, chicken nuggets, and the like. Have you ever taken the time to read the labels on these products? You may be surprised to learn just how many fillers they contain, along with a long list of chemical additives and preservatives. It seems that either way you look at it unless you’re eating real meat directly from the farm to your table, the health benefits are iffy. A study at Harvard University in 2016 did point out, however, that people who consumed plant protein rather than meat protein had a lesser chance of dying during the study. That may tip the scales a bit in favor of the meat substitute, I suppose, although there is one caveat. Dieticians warn that these meat alternatives may not provide several essential nutrients, such as iron and B vitamins. Such deficiencies can cause anemia, fatigue, balance problems, irritability, confusion, skin rashes, and a plethora of other problems. So, if you decide to cut your meat intake drastically, or even cut it out entirely, you may want to consider a supplement. You should consult a doctor before embarking on a strict vegan diet.
When it comes right down to it, the choice is yours. There may be some advantage to substituting meat alternatives for meat in your diet. But what may be a small advantage for you may be a larger advantage for the planet as a whole. The use of meat alternatives may have a major impact on the environment. It takes about 90% less water, 60% fewer fossil fuels, and 95% less land to produce a delicious burger substitute than to raise a cow only to eat it. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? These kinds of resource savings can contribute to the support of an ever-growing population. But it will be difficult to achieve such a goal unless we change at a fundamental level. Let’s face it – we love meat! Our bodies need and crave the nutrients that meat provides. Our hearts may go out to the lambs frolicking in pastures, to the chickens nesting in their coops, and the cattle grazing contentedly on the hillside, but our stomachs still growl at the sight of a juicy steak or the smell of frying chicken. Until we can train humanity as a whole to think differently, to long for a carrot substitute as opposed to that vegan diet we all practice, the odds of achieving this type of nirvana are slim. Veggies may be marginally better for us, but we like the taste of meat. And if we can indulge our cravings as well as eat healthily, why shouldn’t we?