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Monday 21 August 2017
Of burgers, blood and balderdash
It’s one of the most depressing aspects of environmentalism that pressing needs for change inevitably get turned into saleable products.
As the need to reduce our meat consumption rises so too do the number of so-called ‘meat substitutes’, products which aim to get us to eat less meat while still pretending that we are eating meat.
Putting the mind-fuck of that aside for a moment, there are real problems with meat analogues – both old and new – which, in their enthusiasm, supporters either don’t understand or wilfully choose to ignore.
Fake means fake
The glossy PR about the future of food is compelling; but fake meat is no more the future of food than fake fur or fake leather are the future of clothing.
Moreover, as with all market solutions to complex problems, once the cracks begin to show they quickly become irreparable.
The Impossible Burger is already on sale in selected outlets across the US. Backed by $257 million in venture capital funding from Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates amongst others, manufacturers Impossible Foods, have pushed it onto the marketplace on the basis of a self-affirmed GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) status. Its panel of paid experts determined that the SLH proteins were structurally similar to natural ones and therefore safe. The FDA, however, rejects this claim.
Amongst its concerns was whether SLH was an allergen and in the FDA’s words: “The current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.”
So many campaigners were super excited by the news yesterday, but food being the big business that it is, the Impossible Burger does not need FDA GRAS status to remain on the market.
Regulations don’t require the company to disclose the results of its own ‘safety’ tests or even share them with the FDA, so really we may never know what testing was done unless, or until, more whistleblower documents suddenly appear. Or until it kills someone.
This story will run for a while, but while we wait it’s worth deconstructing other aspects of the burger as well.
The SLH in the Impossible Burger is produced using a genetically engineered yeast culture. Its purpose is to make the burger cook and taste more like meat.
Impossible Foods maintains that humans have been eating this kind of heme for “hundreds of thousands of years”. This is patently not true since it is a novel ingredient which has only emerged in the last few years.
The SLH, a plant based source of iron, also makes the burger appear to ‘bleed’ when cooked.
Technically the manufacturers should not be referring to it as heme since this is only present in meat and shellfish. Plants produce non-heme iron.
The distorted focus on the bleeding burger and its ‘heme’ content assumes that foods, like Lego action figures, are just assemblages of individual components. It denies the fact that fresh meat, just like fresh grains, pulses and vegetables is a wholefood and that wholefoods are complex. We really haven’t even scratched the surface of how the components of wholefoods work synergistically with each other and in our bodies.
But there are some things we do know and one of these is that there is more to nutrition than how much of something a product has in it. Iron, in particular is tricky stuff and how much the body absorbs is dependent on multiple factors including the source of the iron and how low or high an individual body’s iron stores are. Impossible Foods nutrition data suggests that its burger has more iron than a comparably sized ground beef burger, which on the surface of things looks true.
But some aspects of the matrix may render this unavailable to the body. For instance, soya and wheat contain phytates, fibre that binds to iron and transports it through the digestive tract unabsorbed. Experts continue to wrestle with the issue of iron bioavailability from different foods; it is possible, for example, that the processing of the Impossible Burger may break down some of the phytates and make iron more bioavailable. But in general only 5-12% of the iron in a strict vegetarian diet is absorbed, compared to 14-18% from a mixed diet that includes meat.