The Brave New World of Meat

The world of food and nutrition is no stranger to polarization, but the public’s increasingly divergent attitudes towards beef may be unprecedented.

On one end, it’s safe to say that the options for a vegan diet have never been more abundant. Perhaps no food better exemplifies this than the variety of lab-produced meatless burgers.

Although several brands have developed these products, the leader of the pack seems to be the “Impossible Burger,” developed by Impossible Foods. Burger King will soon be offering a version of the product to customers nation-wide, while White Castle has already added it to its menus. You may even see lab-grown meatless steaks in the near future.

Veggie burgers have been around for a long time, so what makes these products different?

The goal of these new products is to simulate an actual burger as closely as possible, including the taste, texture, and even the dark-pink appearance (Impossible Burger marketing focuses heavily on its burger’s ability to “bleed”) of a medium-rare hamburger. The nutrition facts also more closely mirror that of an all-beef burger, although you’ll never find three grams of fiber in a real Whopper.

Considering the widespread concern about the impact of factory farming on the environment, this change may seem like an obvious win for those concerned about sustainability; but at this point support is far from unanimous in those circles.

Is it healthy? Or, more importantly, is it healthier than real beef? These burgers are inarguably a highly-processed food, which generally isn’t a positive sign for a food’s health value. They are similarly high in saturated fat as real ground beef, but much higher in sodium. The protein in the burgers, which comes from either soy or pea protein, closely mirrors that of beef. With calorie amounts being similar, they don’t appear to be a better option for weight management. All in all, it’s probably a wash as far as nutrition value goes (sustainability and animal welfare concerns aside).

Meanwhile, champions of the carnivore diet extoll the virtues of living on beef and beef alone. This is a much less complicated end of the meat consumption spectrum – it’s a bad idea. Although certain versions of the carnivore diet recommend supplementation, the risk for nutrient deficiencies is high. And although cutting your diet down to exactly one food group is likely to reduce your calorie intake and may support weight loss in the short-term, good luck sticking to this eating approach for the long haul. If the kidney stones don’t get to you, the constipation will.

How much meat should we actually be eating? Right now, the average American still eats too much, while consistently coming up short in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. While there are other considerations for meat consumption, namely sustainability and animal welfare, from a pure health and wellness standpoint we should take a cue from inhabitants of the world’s “Blue Zones”. This moniker highlights groups of people in the world who live exceptionally long, healthy lives. One of the common characteristics amongst Blue Zone inhabitants is that they don’t eat much meat; in most cases, they only eat meat once or twice a week during large, celebratory meals. A similar approach might do the average American a great deal of good. Where should products like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger fit in? Right now, it’s still hard to say.

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