The problem with ‘plant’-based protein

The latest food fad is coming to America’s hospitals and schools.

Last month, Aramark and Sodexo, the two largest providers of food in the nation, signed deals with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, two of the fastest growing plant-based protein companies. The deals would seem to make it official that these new meat substitutes are a healthier alternative to the real thing.

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Take a deeper look and you see these institutions are selling their guests short.

Remember SnackWell’s? The ’90s cookie was lauded for being a healthy cookie when nutritionists were warning people away from consuming fat. But it wasn’t so. The cookie traded its fat for an increase in carbs — sugar — to make it palatable. And as nutrition research has developed, nutritionists zeroed in on sugar as something we should watch.

Plant-based meat substitutes are the SnackWell’s of the modern era, promising consumers a health halo that doesn’t square with reality.

Impossible Food’s burger contains 370 mg of sodium and 240 calories, while Beyond Meat’s burger contains 390 mg of sodium and 250 calories. Compared to a 90% lean beef burger of the same size, the plant-based burgers have average almost 25% more calories. Their increase in sodium is more than 400%.

The differences go deeper.

These new products fall into what is known as “ultra-processed” foods. According to the NOVA food classification system, ultra-processed foods are “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes.”

The two major plant-based alternatives both have more than 15 ingredients. One ingredient is methylcellulose, a filler with no nutritional benefit. The bulking agent is often used in laxatives and, according to studies using animals, might promote colorectal cancer.

Other plant-based meat products on the market have even more ingredients — some more than 40! The National Institute of Health cautioned that ultra-processed foods are linked to obesity. A real beef patty has one ingredient: beef.

Some Americans are either misinformed or were deceived into thinking these fake burgers are healthy vegetable patties masquerading as real meat. According to a recent Mintel study, 76% of Americans think plant-based foods are healthy while 46% think these proteins are healthier than traditional animal products.

And the plant-based deception doesn’t stop at personal health. Despite what you heard, plant-based protein won’t save the planet either.

Advocates of swapping authentic meat for the fake analogue argue that raising livestock emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, or GHG. Yet emissions from livestock agriculture is nominal. The EPA calculates less than 3% of GHG emissions in America comes from farm animals. GHG emissions would shrink only 2.6% if all Americans went cold turkey and gave up all animal protein — not just meat but also milk, cheese and even butter.

Livestock agriculture is one of the best technologically adapted sectors when it comes to climate change. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that since 1961, American production of livestock has doubled while shrinking 11.3% of GHG emissions.

A much more effective way to reduce GHG emissions is to help other countries modernize their farming — not convert America into eating soy burgers.

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“Plant-based” burgers might be trendy today, but once health-conscious consumers look at the label, they might go the way of leg warmers, Troll dolls, Rubik cubes and other fads.

Will Coggin is the managing director at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices.

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