- Further study is needed to determine whether plant-based meat alternatives designed to replicate the real thing are as healthy and environmentally beneficial as they claim to be, according to a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The authors are physicians, nutritionists and public health specialists from Harvard University.
- Critics are also raising questions about plant-based meat options, which are becoming more popular as a way to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol while benefiting the planet, Bloomberg reported. The Center for Consumer Freedom ran full-page ads last month in The Wall Street Journal and New York Post slamming companies that make alternatives for misleading consumers into thinking their options are less chemically processed than real meat.
- The Impossible Burger has been singled out as a target because its ingredient list includes heme, an iron-containing molecule made by fermenting genetically modified yeast. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved heme as a food additive in ground beef analog products.
As the plant-based food market continues to grow with sales jumping 11% in the past year and shelves filling up with new products, there are more questions about how healthy these products actually are. Whether plant-based meat alternatives from brands such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are healthier when compared to real meat tends to depend on whom you ask and what their inherent biases might be.
According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the real thing is nutritionally superior because it doesn't contain added sodium and a host of other ingredients as some plant-based products do. When consumers buy a steak or a pound of ground beef, NCBA's CEO Colin Woodall said in a July news release, they're buying a single ingredient. But when they buy "one particular fake-meat product," they're getting pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil and a long list of other ingredients.
"Anyone who thinks that these fake meat products are more nutritious or more natural than real beef is very mistaken, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure people know that," Woodall said.
Impossible Foods has defended the use of genetically modified soy in its products and countered reports that glyphosate residues have been found on the Impossible Burger by telling Food Navigator its products are monitored for more than 300 pesticides and other contaminants.
Beyond Meat, which doesn't use GMO or soy ingredients, has pushed back against charges its products are too processed. During a July earnings call, CEO Ethan Brown said the company is moving toward a cleaner label, and invited consumers to visit its Missouri production facilities to learn more about how the products are made.
Research has shown both sides of the spectrum. When Business Insider recently asked four nutritionists to evaluate the 22 ingredients in a Beyond Burger patty, they found them generally satisfactory. Its 6 grams of saturated fat concerned some, and they agreed the product was "highly processed." Still, the consensus was a plant-based burger is a healthier choice than a real meat patty because of processed meat's link to cancer and red meat's role in greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to consumer perception, many think plant-based foods are better for them. A study last year from DuPont Nutrition & Health found 52% of U.S. consumers are eating more plant-based foods, and they believe it makes them feel healthier. The consumer trend toward plant-based products is driving sales for meat alternatives ever higher. According to Euromonitor, U.S. sales of meat substitutes hit $19.5 billion last year — and are projected to jump 78% to reach $2.5 billion by 2023. No doubt these numbers, along with Beyond Meat's stellar Wall Street debut in May, are playing a role in attracting criticism to the segment.
Until more objective studies of plant-based meat alternatives are completed, it's likely how consumers feel about them and how the market is responding that will influence the situation more than anything critics may say. Meanwhile, it would be smart for manufacturers to be as transparent as possible, streamline ingredient lists to respond to concerns and try to weather this storm that seems to be prompted — at least in part — by their success.