The promise of faux meat may be overblown, but it’s nice to have options

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Last month, a report on the promise of faux meat as an alternative to animal agriculture was released by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

There’s plenty of food for thought about broken food systems in “The Politics of Protein,” but most of us probably want to know if making the switch to alt-meat is actually any better for us and/or the planet.

According to the report, the promise of faux meat is overblown. Since we have plenty of vegan sources of protein already, at best it’s a solution to a problem we don’t have. At worst, it’s a greenwashing scheme aimed at protecting Big Food peddling ultra-processed plant products that, from a health standpoint, may or may not be any better than the meat products they replace.

Not everybody, though, thinks it’s quite as simple as that. Some think there’s a place at the table for meat alternatives, be they cell-grown “meats” or plant “meat” burgers and bacon.

“When I look at these types of meats or any similar products available on the market, I usually don’t see them as a more health conscious choice,” said Prab Kaur, a registered dietitian and owner of NutriKaur, a practice that offers nutrition counselling.

“The frequency that I would recommend these foods as part of a diet wouldn’t be likely to have major health impacts,” said Kaur, a vegetarian herself whose practice is largely devoted to helping people adopt a more plant-based diet.

“There’s a benefit just from being able to enjoy foods that we’re used to and are similar to the things other people eat in our culture,” she added.

Thanks to the understanding that rigid and restrictive diet plans don’t work for most people, nutrition science has shifted to adopt a more pragmatic and flexible approach that encourages people to find ways to find pleasure in their food, whether alone or in social settings.

Although Kaur doesn’t recommend eating a plant burger on a daily basis, it’s nice to have an alternative to the salad bar at every summer barbecue. For many, having more options on the table makes it more likely they can commit to a long-term dietary change to plant-based eating.

For many of Kaur’s clients, at least part of the reason for shifting to plants is to lessen their environmental footprints. Unfortunately, the report makes the argument that both plant-based and cell-based “meats” are total energy pigs, since the processes involved are energy-intensive. Producers would have to make a full switch to green energy sources to lessen their environmental impact.

Fortunately, Evan Fraser, director, of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, says the switch is already partly underway. Further, much of the data used to analyze the environmental impact of food processing is about five years out of date.

“That’s not a criticism, it’s just that things are changing so fast,” said Fraser who, in 2019, worked on a different report that was based on data from 2016. “We found there was a lot of energy going into cell-based meat products but, today, the technologies used to make the same product are completely different and the energy footprint has radically, radically dropped.”

Fraser says that drop is owing to a combination of changing technologies, more efficiently designed production facilities and scaling up. “Some of the data used by people who say this is really energy intensive is based on data from pilot plants,” he said.

As with any discipline, there are different camps in the field of food studies, one of which is skeptical of essentially any technological solutions, since technological advances can never fix the bigger problem: a broken food system.

Fraser would agree that the system is in need of reform and that technology won’t solve systemic issues. Still, just like an occasional plant burger might be a good option to have on the table to give an individual the flexibility to cope with a life change of eating plants, so might new technologies have the ability to “radically reduce the environmental footprint of our food system.”

“The world’s a big place and you can have room for different strategies in different places,” said Fraser. “It’s not necessarily an either/or. I think that we can be changing the system and eating less meat and changing the technology, and that all these things are necessary.”

Necessary because over a couple of decades, things Fraser warned about — possible disruptions to the food system as a result of war, disease and climate change — are no longer theoretical. As such, we need as many options on the table as possible.

Because, as Fraser puts it: “Right now, the world is playing for keeps.”

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