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Plant-Based Meat Substitutes are Not Saving the Environment

Plant-Based Meat Substitutes are Not Saving the Environment


Earlier this month, we talked about lab-grown meat and why we don't think it's the answer to feeding a growing population. While lab-grown meat hasn't yet hit the market, synthetic meat has been growing popularity amongst consumers for a while now in the form of plant-based meat substitutes.

Patrick O. Brown, biochemist and founder of Impossible Foods, Inc., claims to have solved the biggest threat to our environment with his beef replacement products. The “magic ingredient” that makes these plant-based products resemble red meat? Hemoglobin.  

Hemoglobin, or heme, is an iron-containing found in high concentrations in red meat and is what provides its pinkish hue. Luckily for Brown, it can also be found in some plant foods. It’s what gives the Impossible Burgers a pink-like color when raw and meaty cooked—just like the real stuff.

The heme component that makes the Impossible Burger taste and even bleed like meat comes from soy leghemoglobin (SLH) derived from genetically-engineered yeast. The SLH gene is taken from the soybean and inserted into a strain of yeast, and then the yeast is grown in industrial vats full of chemically-synthesized broth. The SLH is then once again isolated from the yeast to be used in the Impossible Burger.


This process, known as “fermentation,” is clearly resource-intensive—something not mentioned amidst claims from Impossible Foods about saving the environment.

This is the first time SLH has been in the food supply before, and the FDA refused to sign off on its safety. SLH is not the only highly-processed ingredient derived from GMOs. Most of the other ingredients in the burger are highly-processed, adding to the energy needed for manufacturing

The Impossible Burger even smells like real meat when cooked. Along with the taste and texture, the smell was engineered. Using a gas chromatography mass spectrometry machine, they isolated all of the compounds that make up the smell of meat. Once they identified the hundreds of different components of the meat scent, they were able to recreate that smell in the lab.


Impossible Foods isn’t the only company engineering meat-like substances from plants. Beyond Meat, a soy- and gluten-free option, is sold in the meat case at grocery stores and at restaurants around the country.

Canola oil is the third ingredient in the Impossible Burger, after only water and pea protein isolate. Canola oil is chemically processed from rapeseeds, and even the rare non-GMO varieties are some of the most pesticide-treated crops. Even when the seeds is expeller-pressed, it requires large amounts of heat to process into oil, which is easily oxidized. Following extraction, the oil must be degummed and deodorized, requiring more heat and industrial processing.

This companies have received millions of dollars in funding from well-meaning investors, including Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio, who want to contribute to positive environmental change. However, if we take a step back as to how we got into the environmental predicament in the first place, these meat substitutes don’t seem like the best use of our financial resources.

Factory farming became popularized in the 1960s in an attempt to meet the food needs of a growing population. Animals were put in CAFOs (concentrated animal feed operations) to reduce land and feed requirements. Now, over 95% of animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms.

As a result, animals welfare, the environment, and human health are suffering. We feel that the best path forward is to go back to traditional ways of working with the land and animals, rather than creating yet another resource-intensive industry.

In short, we can’t outsmart nature. Instead of trying to create meat substitutes that require industrial processing and potentially harmful ingredients, our money and efforts are much better spent on producing food—both plants and animals—in a way that supports the land. Here at EPIC, we are adamant about sourcing our ingredients from farmers that treat the animals and land with respect. Because of this awareness, the food produced is less resource-intensive and more nutrient-dense than factory-farmed meat. When animals—especially ruminants like cattle—are raised on grassland with space to roam, they can actually regenerate the land.

Ultimately, we feel that processed meat substitutes are stemming from the same mentality as industrial farming. While we agree with these companies’ stance that factory farming is contributing to environmental destruction, the problem is unlikely to be solved in yet another factory.

We are grateful for all of the progressive and innovative thinkers who are conscious of how their choices impact the environment. However, advancements in technology and processing ingredients are not the answers to the health and environmental crises we find ourselves in. Instead, let’s work with the land and animals. Let’s go back to basics and give the environment a chance to make a comeback.



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