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Mission Impossible: Are Plant Based Foods Going to Substitute Meat?

Conceptualized by founding partner Hagop Giragossian, along with Würstmacher Adam Gertler (pictured) and Chef Ilan Hall, Dog Haus is one of many restaurants now offering plant-based food items. – Photos by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

Food for thought

By Terry Miller

You may have heard of the latest trend in food: ‘plant based.’ But do any of us really know what it is and how the food industry is initiating a meat mutiny, if you will.

“Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” the late legendary actor Robert Mitchum proclaimed in 1993  as he touted the ad campaign funded by the “Beef Checkoff Program” with “creative guidance” of Leo Burnett Worldwide advertising agency.

There are other, earlier classic television ads peddling beef. Remember 81 year-old Clara Peller’s famous line, “Where’s the beef?” That catchphrase in the United States and Canada, introduced in 1984, originated as a slogan for Wendy’s. Since then it has become an all-purpose phrase.

Experts have proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that too much red meat can increase your risk of everything from heart disease to certain cancers, and the beef industry has a huge impact on the environment. Methane gases and massive slaughter houses contribute serious side effects to our air quality, let alone the inhumane conditions under which animals are treated.

However people devour, dare I say, crave and consume meat by the ton every day of the year. But, as Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a changin’.” And, my goodness how times have changed.

Two influential companies have coerced the restaurant business into changing the way they not only look at food but also the potential to get plant based foods to be the new “meat.”

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have, essentially, started a revolution with plant based foods that actually taste like meat.

Beyond Meat, was created by vegan Ethan Brown in 2009 and although still very popular with millions of people worldwide, animal meat is taking a back seat due to plant-based foods insurgency that mimic meat, complete with the “bleeding” of rare cooked meat.

Beyond does not try to market to vegans and vegetarians, who account for less than 5% of the U.S. population. The Beyond Burger is now available at about 11,000 of its 17,000 grocery-store customers in the U.S.

And since their debut at Whole Foods in May 2016, Beyond Burger patties have made their way into tens of thousands of supermarkets (from Kroger to Safeway), restaurants (from TGI Friday to Carl’s Jr.), hotels (like The Ritz Carlton, Hong Kong) and even sports stadiums (like Yankee Stadium).

Impossible Foods says that “using animals to make meat is a prehistoric and destructive technology. Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater and destroys our ecosystems. So we’re doing something about it: we’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again. That way, we can eat all the meat we want, for as long as we want. And save the best planet in the known universe.”

Heme is what makes meat taste like meat. “It’s an essential molecule found in every living plant and animal — most abundantly in animals — and something we’ve been eating and craving since the dawn of humanity. Here at Impossible Foods, our plant-based heme is made via yeast fermention, and safety-verified by America’s top food-safety experts and peer-reviewed academic journals. 

“Our original recipe is primarily made from soy and potato protein. It also contains coconut and sunflower oil (which gives it its sizzle) and heme (which makes meat taste like meat),” Impossible Foods claims.

Last November, Dog Haus, the gourmet hot dog, sausage and burger concept, launched custom plant-based sausages and burgers, expanding their offerings “to meet every guest’s needs and taste. With the help of plant-based powerhouses – Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – four new menu items are now available at all 30-plus Dog Haus locations nationwide, enticing vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

“We have always offered vegetarian-friendly options to ensure there is something for everyone at Dog Haus, but we knew we could take these offerings to a new level, especially in the context of today’s plant-based market,” says Hagop Giragossian, Dog Haus partner.

We at Beacon Media sampled The Impossible Burger at the Alhambra Dog Haus recently and were stunned by not only the flavor but the look of the food. One would be hard pressed to believe this is plant based. As a vegetarian, this reporter found it rather odd that vegans/vegetarians would want to eat something that tastes like meat! But then, these companies aren’t aiming their corporate crosshairs on non-carnivores; the opposite is true.

Looking at key ingredients in Impossible Burgers, GMO Science found the following:

“A key ingredient of the Impossible Burger is a protein called soy leghemoglobin (SLH) derived from genetically engineered yeast. SLH contains an add-on component known as ‘heme.’ In its natural form, SLH is found in the root nodules of soybean plants. Impossible Foods has taken the SLH gene from the soybean and used genetic engineering technology to insert it into a strain of yeast. The resulting genetically modified (GM) yeast is grown at an industrial scale in vats, a process known as fermentation. The SLH is then isolated from the yeast and added to the Impossible Burger.

“The heme component of SLH (soy leghemoglobin) in the Impossible Burger gives it a meat-like taste and makes it ‘bleed’ like rare meat. This component mimics the effect of heme in natural meat such as beef, where it is principally present as part of two proteins, hemoglobin in red blood cells and myoglobin in the muscle of the meat.

“The Impossible Burger is not made from organically sourced or Non-GMO ingredients, so there are other substances present in this product that in all likelihood are also derived from GM organisms (GMOs) – namely soy protein isolate and a number of vitamins … So overall, the Impossible Burger is a GMO food.

“Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumers Union and member of the GMO Science advisory board, agreed, telling Wired Magazine: ‘Just because proteins have similar functions or similar three-dimensional structures, doesn’t mean that they’re similar. They can have a very different amino acid sequence, and just slight changes can have impacts.’

Such impacts could include unexpected toxicity or allergenicity.”

However in January 2019, The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that Impossible Foods’ key ingredient soy leghemoglobin is safe to consume, following an extensive review. The meat alternatives firm said scientists had previously questioned whether soy leghemoglobin would have “adverse effects” for those who suffered from allergens. However, they revealed a search of allergen databases found that soy leghemoglobin had a very low risk of allergenicity, and had shown no adverse effects in exhaustive testing.

Despite the GMO controversy, 2018 data from Nielsen and the Plant-Based Foods Association show sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased during 2018 by 24% to $670 million, while sales of animal-based meat only rose 2% during that same period. Having to get the FDA’s approval for a color additive isn’t likely to adversely impact Impossible Foods’ popularity nor that of plant-based products in general as long as the company is transparent about the process.

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