The meat industry has a warning for consumers: Beware of plant-based meat.
That is the message behind a marketing campaign by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a public relations firm whose financial supporters have included meat producers and others in the food industry. In full-age ads, the group has raised health concerns about plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, which are designed to look, taste and even appear to bleed like real meat.
The ads call them “ultra-processed imitations.” “What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?” asks one ad. Another directs readers to a site that compares plant-based burgers to dog food.
Impossible Foods, which makes a popular plant-based burger, said the campaign was misleading and fearmongering. “It’s a point of pride to have that organization come after us,” said Pat Brown, the company’s chief executive. “It’s hard to imagine a stronger endorsement.”
Unlike other vegetarian meat substitutes, the new plant-based burgers are winning over meat lovers. “The two big brands, Beyond and Impossible, have replicated the burger experience without having to sacrifice the taste of the burger,” said Darren Seifer, an analyst at NPD. “So now a lot of consumers feel like they have a healthier option, they are reducing the amount of meat they consume, and they just feel better about that.”
But are plant-based meats really better for you than meat? It depends on how you eat them, said Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Replacing a hamburger with a plant burger is not an improvement if you chase it with French fries and a sugar-laden soda, Hu said.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat say the building blocks of their burgers are plants. The Beyond Burger has about 18 ingredients, including purified pea protein, coconut and canola oils, rice protein, potato starch and beet juice extract for coloring.
The Impossible Burger is made with similar basic ingredients, but it gets its protein largely from soy and potato, and it uses an iron-containing compound called heme to enhance the burger’s meaty flavor. Both products use methyl cellulose, a plant derivative commonly used in sauces and ice cream, as a binder.
Compared to a beef patty, the Impossible and Beyond burgers have similar amounts of protein and calories, with less saturated fat and no cholesterol. They also contain fiber; meat does not. But compared to beef, the two plant-based burgers are considerably higher in sodium.
Meat producers are taking the fight to lawmakers. At least 25 states have introduced bills making it illegal to use the words “beef” or “meat” on products made from plant ingredients or meat grown in a lab.
Brown, chief executive of Impossible Foods, said his company’s mission is not to convince consumers that the Impossible Burger is the most nutritious food they can eat. “The niche that this fills is not the same niche that a kale salad fills,” he said. “If you’re hungry for a burger and you want something that’s better for you and better for the planet that delivers everything you want from a burger, then this is a great product. But if you’re hungry for a salad, eat a salad.”