At least twice a month I get two bowls of a wonderful mix of fresh foods at a local establishment. My wife, dog, and I go out and picnic in a gazebo by the river. When ordering I start with a base of rice, quinoa, or riced cauliflower. Then I am asked for a choice of protein—cubed chicken or steak. A host of vegetable options are available. I always chose the small chunks of rainbow radish and cooked brussels sprouts! The cafeteria-style shop offers selected options Mother Nature never dreamed of putting together. As long as the foods represent intact tissue, who could object?
But all the options coming from plants have protein too. Mad food scientists have ideas on how to make plants good sources of protein. We macerate plant tissue and extract the proteins. Next we isolate these proteins and mix the isolates to produce strange combinations. Then we have the gall to call these combinations foods! And high-protein foods at that! Food scientists break apart the food matrix to form an artificial matrix. Has the scientist created a work of art or a fake food? That is the question forming a battleline in the food-culture wars.
Most of what we read about alternate proteins from plants is in the form of faux meats. But such proteins added to other industrial formulations boost protein in the product. Alternative plant proteins are also available as home ingredients on Amazon. These ingredients bulk up protein in home formulations known as recipes. Protein concentrates and isolates serve as ingredients in homemade and processed products. Their role is to improve the nutritional value of foods. My whole-food, lunch bowls match animal- and plant-based foods. Processors mix and match proteins from plants and animals in hybrid offerings. So do home cooks.
Nutrition is one of the two prime reasons cited to abandon animal products. Plant-based diets promise healthier lifestyles than those reliant on animal products. Plant-based dietary patterns contain dietary fiber and less fat than animal-based patterns. Animal proteins have more balanced amino-acid profiles. Foods from animals also have higher levels of vitamins and minerals. A variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains can overcome nutrient deficits without excess fat.
Plants contain protein, but it is not as balanced as animal protein. More balance in amino acids is possible with combinations of pea, soy, and wheat proteins. Processors extract and concentrate, isolate, or purify plant proteins from whole foods. Burger analogues from plant-based proteins have a similar nutritional profile to 80% lean ground beef. Protein bioavailability, calcium, and iron are lower in the analogue. Sodium levels are higher. Nutritional composition of individual foods means little without context within a dietary pattern. Context is important. Protein bioavailability from the analogue may increase the protein status of a vegan. A veggie burger may make little difference in protein consumption of a human carnivore. Plants contain antinutritional compounds that can interfere with proper digestion of protein. Processors must ensure that such compounds are not present in these products.
Sustainability is the second reason that plant-based proteins replace animal proteins in products. Major sustainability issues between plant and animal proteins include land use and emissions. Free-range animal operations take up large expanses of land. In some cases, pastures represent the best use of that land. In other cases, wildlife habitat suffers. Factory farms decrease concerns about land. These operations still produce emissions and present major pollution problems. Consumption of meat has increased around the world. Replacement of animal-based proteins must extend beyond high-income countries. Modest movement from animal products to alternate proteins will not make a difference. Only massive switches will yield a sustainability dividend.
Major drivers for adoption of plant-based products include a healthy image and animal welfare. Health over-rides concerns about animal welfare and sustainability. Cost of these items is still the major limiting factor. Regulatory and cultural issues provide barriers to technology transfer between countries. If consumers buy large quantities of plant-based products, motivation will not matter.
Safety. To food scientists, food safety means that the food we eat won’t make us sick. In our world, food safety relates to poisoning with microbes the usual suspects. In the real world, food safety relates to additives that could lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. This blog views safety from a food scientist’s perspective. Plant-based meats are safe food products. Like any product they become unsafe through contamination. Such dangers come from unsafe processing, handling and distribution, or home preparation. They are safer than raw meats contaminated during the slaughter and cutting operations. Uncooked raw meat can cross-contaminate other foods through unwashed hands, utensils, or tableware. Raw meats become safe to eat upon proper cooking.
Flavor, color, and texture. The greatest challenge for all products featuring plant-based proteins is sensory quality. If a product does not measure up to expected flavor, color, and texture, it will not be a success. Such products must also be enticing and convenient. Flavor is critical, but so are color and textural properties to gain acceptance.
Lentil and pea proteins are prime ingredients in burgers. One limitation is the emergence of beany and other off-flavors. When eating an Impossible Burger at a fast-food location, I noted a beany odor after the meat had cooled. Spices can overcome some of these off-flavors. Look for other proteins such as those from chickpeas and sunflower in future products. Look also for meat analogues to go beyond burgers and sausages.
Ultra-processing. Most products containing plant-protein ingredients appear in ultra-processed foods. Meat, milk, and eggs are complex mixes of chemicals arranged in a delicate matrix. Simulating these complex structures requires careful study and an understanding of the functions of ingredients. Products that mimic animal-based foods need many ingredients to approximate authentic quality. Not all foods that incorporate plant-based proteins are analogues. A vegan product needing more protein might be able to use a plant protein without so many additives. Anyone who wants healthier processed foods will need to accept the role of food additives.
Works of art or fake foods? Using plant-based proteins to produce a marketable product takes both art and science. Like a chef or cook, a product developer knows the importance of each ingredient. Amounts of ingredients and their interactions make the difference between success or failure. Designing an appealing analogue is a work of art.
Critics point out that plant-based proteins are neither natural nor healthy. Reliance on many food additives, they claim, is unhealthy and may cause a spate of chronic diseases. Causation based on correlation is without scientific validity. At the same time, health-adjusted life expectancies are increasing around the world. It is convenient to blame ultra-processed foods for diabetes and obesity. Development of obesity and associated illness is multifactorial.
It is clear that we need to decrease reliance on animal proteins to combat climate change. Without this change, emissions will not be near zero by 2050. It is also clear that humans and animals need protein to thrive not only survive. Note that we welcomed the 8 billionth person to the planet earth yesterday. It took us 11 years to at the latest billion people. Where is the protein coming to feed the estimated 1 to 2 billion more mouths by 2050? If that protein is not coming from animals, what will the source be? If we don’t all become vegans, how are we going to tap the vast amount of proteins provided by plants? Will the technology to mine plants for protein be an answer?
Predictions of the death of plant-based meats make frequent appearances. They fit into the food-culture wars of C BUT NOT D perspective. For example, “C believes in fighting climate change BUT rejects all plant-based meats.” Innovative technologies and products fit the Gartner Hype Cycle as noted by Adam Yee. I remember the death of the electric car, but it seems to be making a comeback. Many consumers resist products containing protein ingredients from plants. Could marketing and promotion turn the tide?
Next week: Animal-based protein without the animal