The world is realising that what we eat is affecting the planet, and so there’s been a major trend to eat less meat. Vegan is indeed the new black. But what about those people who really, really love the taste of a juicy steak, a pork chop or a beef burger on the barbecue? Well, there’s a plan for that. These days there are many more options than mushrooms, tofu or tempeh. In fact, there’s been a huge drive to recreate the taste and texture of meat, but without the cruelty and environmental harm attached to it. There’s even been an emerging development of lab-grown meats. Is this all necessary? Is it the future of food? Or is it best left as a scene in a sci-fi film? Let’s delve.
The Impact of the Meat and Dairy Industries
A study by UCLA revealed that cutting down on meat consumption can lead to a drastic reduction in the strain on freshwater resources. A kilogram of beef takes anywhere from 5,000 to around 20,000 litres of water to produce. This is mostly from the irrigation needed to produce grass or grain to feed the animals. To produce a litre of milk, it takes over 1,000 litres of water. Can you imagine how much distress this places on ecosystems and communities? On the other hand, it takes only around 800 litres to produce a kilogram of apples and even less for a kilo of bananas. A kilo of potatoes needs just over 250 litres and a kilo of tomatoes only needs around 200 litres of water.
As you can see, producing meat needs a lot more water than most veggies and grains, which is just one of the many ways in which it negatively affects the environment. A UN climate change report showed that an animal-based diet creates up to four times more greenhouse gas emissions than a plant-based diet, not to mention the impact made through a loss of biodiversity, land and water degradation, deforestation, and the carbon footprint made by transporting meat and dairy products.
Does This Mean We Should Only Eat Veggies and Fruits?
A diet of potatoes and apples is not the solution and simply adopting a plant-based diet is not necessarily healthier. Yes, fruits and veggies are good for us, but we also need protein. Luckily, we don’t need animals to get protein and protein-packed plant-based foods need less water to produce than what meat does. To produce a kg of tofu or oats it takes around 2,500 litres of water. Other protein sources like peas, spinach, edamame, avocado, quinoa and chickpeas also take less water to produce. So, plant-based protein has a smaller impact on the environment AND it can be a healthier way to eat. In theory this all sounds great. But, not everyone can imagine giving up meat. At least not unless they can have an equally tasty alternative. And this is how plant-based ‘meats’ became a thing.
Tapping Into the Trend
Soon, fast food restaurants began to jump on the fake meat wagon. In 2019, Burger King introduced the Impossible Whopper. The burger patty is made with soy, potatoes, a few other ingredients and plant-based heme. In case you’re wondering, heme is a tiny molecule with big flavour which is made by fermenting genetically engineered yeast. It’s the ingredient that gives the Impossible burger patty the meaty taste that Burger King patrons have been loving. Hard Rock Café also serves their version of the Impossible burger and TGI Fridays has started offering Beyond Meat burgers, the other popular plant-based ‘meat’ which is also available as ‘ground beef’ and is used by Del Taco in their plant-based tacos. Not to mention the Beyond sausages that are as juicy and delicious as the real thing.
Plant-based ‘meat’ is a fast-growing trend and its popularity shows that it’s here to stay. Considering most of us have no idea how this ‘meat’ is actually made, this is quite interesting. I certainly had no idea, until I researched it.
How Plant-Based ‘Meat’ is Made
In a nutshell, meat alternatives are created with a high-moisture extrusion process which creates the meaty texture along with a “shearing” technique that makes the end product fibrous and more realistic. These products are also packaged in wet environments like bags or cans to maintain integrity. In the end, the products look, smell and taste like the real thing. Whether vegetarians and vegans are nostalgic about eating meat, or meat eaters want to explore ways in which they can eat less meat or stop eating meat, this realism is exactly what’s needed. And soon, other even more realistic “meat” products like steaks and chops may even become the norm.
Is it Alive?
Instead of using plant-based protein products and the processes mentioned above, there is another movement that involves growing/culturing meat in a laboratory. Yes, that sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? Instead of ingredients being altered to resemble meat, actual meat is scientifically ‘grown’. There’s a company called Memphis Meats which produces what they call ‘clean meat’ and apparently allows people to enjoy juicy steaks without any cruelty. This not only helps to save animals, but also has a lower environmental impact. Another lab-grown meat company named Mosa Meats claims that a tissue sample from a single cow can produce as much as 80,000 quarter pounders. This is not only a clean meat solution, it’s also supported by big players like Bill Gates. What makes lab-grown ‘meat’ different to plant-protein ‘meat’?
- The products are grown from cell tissues.
- It keeps the properties of the animal source so it’s juicy, chewy or gamey.
- It is a lot more expensive to produce.
- It’s kind of weird, or is it?
The main challenge to lab-grown meat is apparently the cost involved (see additional details on https://medium.com/thoughts-economics-politics-sustainability/whats-wrong-with-eating-lab-grown-meat-da27d44c4008). But as the technology evolves, costs are dropping. However, I don’t think that’s the only issue. As progressive as we are as modern-day humanity, eating food grown in a lab is still a touchy subject — even though it shouldn’t be. If you really think about it, is it as strange as eating an actual animal? I saw an interesting YouTube video in which PETA gave out milk samples. Most of the people who tried it, enjoyed the so-called new ‘dairy product’ until they were told its dog milk. Then they were horrified. We’ve obviously been conditioned to think that it’s okay to have cow milk, but not dog milk. And just like that, we’ve been led to believe it’s totally normal to eat animals, and yet, many of us find eating lab-grown meat bizarre. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
The Last Bite
When we choose to eat less meat and dairy, or stop it altogether for ethical reasons, it could be because of animal cruelty or to help lessen the environmental impact of the industry. Either way, it’s because we want to do something to improve the planet and our health. Does what we choose to eat instead of animal products really matter? Our options could be:
- Something that has been processed into resembling what we’re used to eating (plant-based ‘meat’)
- Something we’re actually used to, just without the cruelty and environmental impact (lab-grown ‘meat’)
- Actual plants.
Either way, it’s better than dog milk, right?