Meat: Is it What’s for Dinner?

Broiling down the facts of conventional meat and imitation meat products.

A juicy, thick cut hamburger patty sizzling on the seasoned bars of a smoky grill has long been an American staple. Topped with a slice of melty sharp cheddar, watery lettuce, and succulent tomato slices, what meat eaters have always known as a hamburger is changing as the market landscape is adapting to consumer demands. 

For those who don’t consume meat, meat analogues are an increasingly popular substitute to meat products. According to a 2014 article in the Meat Science academic journal, plant-based products are not a new idea, nor do they represent a new food category. However, modern imitation meat products are diffusing into grocery stores and the food service industry. Additionally, there is a justifiable debate on whether or not these analogue foods are nutritionally dangerous. As the expansion of meat analogues captivates markets, consumers should be made aware of the choices they have when making a purchase, whether in the grocery store or at a restaurant. 

“We believe what’s going on is ultimately about choice,” said Alec Winfrey, account manager at Cargill Protein. “We need to keep all protein options on the table when many consumers want choices at the center of their plates.” 

Meat analogues can be defined as food products made to simulate conventional meat on an aesthetic and nutritional basis. Typically, meat analogues are combinations of products derived from plants, fats and oils, flavor additives, and color additives. Due to the nature of imitation meats, they are classified as ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are those that are not made of whole food. They also go through a further handling process, such as curing or adding an ingredient. Flour and ground beef can both be classified as ultra-processed products. 

“Essentially, everything that we do, everything that we eat has some risk associated with it.”

Although ultra-processed has a negative connotation, it doesn’t necessarily mean a food is unhealthy. Dale Woerner, Ph.D., the Cargill Endowed Professor in Meat Science Sustainability in Texas Tech University’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, claims processed is an overblown term that does not imply an item isn’t healthy.

“What people are most referring to processed foods is that we’ve refined the food to a point where it’s more digestible,” Woerner said. “Digestibility…means that it is converted to calories quicker. There are more readily available energy units, like glucose, stored and utilized as a result of that.”

Processing a meat product includes cutting, grinding, curing, marinating, and more.

The Meat Science journal article suggests visual appearance characteristics, such as color, are elementary quality cues in relation to consumer expectations. Similarly, the study concludes that consumers associate red and purple to freshness and brown to aged, lack of freshness. Due to meat having natural color, there isn’t a need to add coloring agents. However, a 2019 article from Food Science and Human Wellness states that meat analogues should have similar color characteristics before, during, and after cooking. 

Though coloring agents will vary between products, Bohrer’s research shows that ingredients frequently used in meatless products elicit naturally occurring color attributes, such as beet juice or tomato paste. Another way meat substitutes simulate a natural color is the use of sarcoplasmic proteins, which have similar chemical structures to the proteins that are responsible for color in meat. Typically, coloring agents do not affect the nutritional value of a food.

“Artificial coloring agents, or flavoring agents aren’t necessarily detrimental to human health,” Woerner said. “They’re not natural, but in most cases, they don’t have a nutritional contribution.”

From a nutritional standpoint, there are many factors that come into play in both conventional meat and imitation meat products. Number of ingredients, carbohydrates, oils and fats, protein content and other additives are things that are considered when evaluating the nutritional value of a food product, both real and analogous. While meats are whole food made of one ingredient, the Food Science and Human Wellness article states that meat analogues are made with ingredients in the double digits. These added ingredients were proven to be foodstuffs such as spices, coloring agents, binding ingredients, proteins derived from plants, and starches. 

“Our focus is on ensuring that both our animal- and plant-based protein products meet the nutritional needs and expectations of our customers and consumers,” Winfrey said. “Plant-based protein products can be formulated to address specific nutrition requirements. Nutritional requirements and preferences may vary based upon the region, customer and even consumer.”

Traditional meat products are normally bought raw while meat analogues typically come precooked.

The article from Food Science and Human Wellness also concludes that more research needs to be conducted on the nutritional effects of the extra ingredients in meat analogues, whether they are positive or negative. In like manner, traditional meats, particularly red meat, has been suggested in epidemiological research to have elevated risks leading to cancer. That being said, there is risk associated with real meat and meat analogues alike. 

“Essentially, everything that we do, everything that we eat has some risk associated with it,” Woerner said. “Pertaining to health or cancer or what have you is just to what point is that risk negligible.”

The verdict in the dispute between traditional meat products and meat analogues can’t be made up without further research. Both sides share the same story. Though there are risks associated with meat and simulated products, there needs to be more research conducted to determine what these risks mean to consumers. Even then, Woerner suggests consumers eat a balanced diet. No matter what dietary choice they make between meat analogues and conventional meat.

“An overabundance of anything leads to imbalance…over consuming meat, over consuming plants and over consuming carbohydrates,” Woerner said. “All can be bad if they are over consumed.”

With the demand for a variety of products, the market is becoming a competitive place. The Meat Science journal article proposes that understanding the complexity of consumer behavior and increasing knowledge of meat culture will boost market competitiveness. In the meantime, consumers can take the facts, interpret them, and make their own decision on which food product they prefer. 

“It’s exactly the same on both sides,” Woerner said. “That’s why moderation is key. Period.”