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IF you’re a vegetarian or knows anyone who is vegetarian, you’d be familiar with the concept of mock meat. Go to any Chinese vegetarian restaurant and you’ll see the menu is full of mock beef, mock chicken, mock fish, and so on. So, the concept of plant-based food items made to look and even taste like meat is nothing new.

What companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have done, however, is to take this to another level where the food item is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing — in terms of both looks and taste.

The Impossible Burger, for example, is made with a plant-based heme that causes the fake ground beef patty to bleed just like meat would. They’ve conducted taste tests where average consumers couldn’t tell the difference between fake meat and real meat.

It’s now available in grocery stores and Burger King outlets in the USA. It’s also available in select eateries in Singapore but not yet in Malaysia. Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat tout both the healthy aspect of plant-based meat as well as the environmentally-friendly factor as well.

The latter isn’t much in dispute. It’s a fact that if people were to move away from eating livestock, there would be a significant reduction in global greenhouse gases. It would also free up land that would otherwise need to be used for animal grazing; there would be less use of water, pesticides and many other environmental benefits. That much isn’t really in doubt.

STILL MUCH TO DEBATE

A study commissioned by Beyond Meat and carried out by the Centre for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan found that the production of Beyond Meat’s burgers generated 90 per cent greenhouse gas emissions compared to that of regular meat burgers.

It also uses 99 per cent less water, 93 per cent less land and 90 per cent less fossil fuel emissions. Meanwhile, the Impossible Burger uses 87 per cent less water, 96 per cent less land, and 89 per cent less fossil fuel emissions than regular ground beef.

The statistics are on fake meat’s side when it comes to environmental-friendliness. But what about the healthy-eating aspect of it? Is fake meat demonstrably healthier for us? That question remains unanswered and it’s something that will probably be debated for a long time to come.

We all know that eating too much red meat isn’t good for you. And eating processed meat is terrible for you. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies such meat products as carcinogenic. In 2015, the WHO named red meat a Group 2 carcinogen, meaning it probably causes cancer in humans. Processed meat was named a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it does cause cancer (interestingly, asbestos and tobacco are in this category as well).

Colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer are all linkable to the consumption of too much red meat. So, it should be better to eat plant-based products, right? Not so fast. While products by the likes of Impossible Food and Beyond Meat are indeed all plant-based, they’re also considered processed food (in fact, heavily processed).

The ingredients in the Beyond Burger, for example, includes pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch as well as beet juice extract, ascorbic acid and annatto extract.

Meanwhile, the Impossible Burger is made with textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, leghemoglobin (heme protein), yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, and xanthan gum. Doesn’t sound very natural, does it? That’s because it isn’t. It’s not processed meat but it is processed food, which isn’t the best kind of food to eat if you’re on a healthy diet.

Even in terms of just pure calories, the fake and real meat versions are remarkably similar. The Impossible Burger is reported to have 630 calories while the regular Whopper has 660 calories. It's worth noting however that the Impossible Whopper has significantly more sodium in it than a regular Whopper.

EARLY DAYS

This doesn’t mean we should just go and gorge ourselves on regular meat burgers. Industrial meat has its own fair share of potentially harmful ingredients. Animals in industrial farms are treated with all kind of chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics and so on. Plant-based burger may not be that much better for you but at least it doesn’t contain all these things.

It’s still very early days for fake meat, which is just starting to enter the market. An article by researchers at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health that looked at whether plant-based meat alternatives can be part of a healthy and sustainable diet was published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their conclusion was that the answer is uncertain due to a lack of rigorously-designed and independently-funded studies.

In short, we don’t really know how healthy or unhealthy these new, hyper-realistic types of fake meats are. So, what is one to do? To eat or not to eat fake meat? The answer is to take it in moderation.

It would be good for the environment if more people ate fake meat. And, in all likelihood, it’s probably less-bad for you than typical junk food made from meat (e.g. hot dogs, burgers and so on). But to be really healthy, it’s much better to just eat lots of fresh vegetables rather than fake meat.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].

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