Can Meat Truly Be Replaced?

Submitted by Dave Draeger, CDM, CFPP,

Director of Dietary and Dining Services

As diets and food trends come and go, one looking to maintain traction is choosing meat substitutes.  Vegan and vegetarian diets continue to be popular, but many consumers are opting to routinely replace meat in their diet.  Grocers, restaurants and fast food have staked claim on the new trend.  Meat substitutes can come in many forms: burgers, breakfast meats, chicken, fish, etc.

Consumers are choosing meat substitutes to manage weight, reduce cholesterol and saturated fat, and increase fiber.  Advocates believe meat substitutes are an alternative that benefits the environment and human health.  Food-borne illness outbreaks have also prompted interest in meat substitutes.  Reports of E-coli and salmonella often make the news.  Initiatives such as Meatless Monday have grown among consumers prompting greater awareness.

Meat alternative manufacturers aim to mimic the taste, texture, aroma and color of real meat.  140 new alternatives have been released with sales of $4 billion in 2017.  No exact definition of a meat substitute can be accepted.  Manufacturers are utilizing a variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, soy, tofu, grains, seeds, lentils, plants, and beans to represent the taste and texture of meat.  However, no one combination is able to represent the nutritional value, texture, taste, or visual properties of meat.

At this time, Americans are eating over 500% of the levels of red meat that are considered healthful and sustainable.  Plant-based diets are more environmentally friendly, use fewer natural resources, and leave less of an environmental foot print.

Utilizing a meat substitute does have drawbacks though.  Some vitamins are only found in foods of animal origin.  Meat substitutes may demand a higher price point due to processing.   Processing also may involve adding ingredients that are not healthy.  Creating the meat texture appeal that consumers require actually decreases the healthy impact of meat substitutes.  Added ingredients may include oil, sauces, marinades, fillers, and artificial additives.

Meat is meat, but meat substitutes are a combination of products.  Meat is a whole, unprocessed food with certain nutritional values that cannot be duplicated.  Processing numerous ingredients increases the possibility of allergic reactions.  Allergenic ingredients may cross contaminate meat substitutes.  Consumers need to read food labels to ensure they are free from allergens.

Meat substitutes will continue to evolve and appear in more outlets.  Awareness of options are being presented to the public.  After weighing the pros and cons and researching, you may try a veggie or meatless burger – the choice is yours.