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Food Science

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.”

Moving Up, Expanding Out

The Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech University is considered one of the nation’s premier animal and food sciences departments in the nation. Equipped with state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities as well as widely recognized faculty and staff. AFS has recently felt unparalleled growth in student enrollment.

Since 2013, the Department of Animal and Food Sciences has experienced an unprecedented 45 percent growth in undergraduate student enrollment, dwarfing the total enrollment growth of the university, which usually only sees a 3 percent average increase in undergraduate enrollment each semester. The student increase in AFS over the past five years is one of the largest growth margins by a department on campus.

The department’s faculty and staff have seen first-hand the continuing enrollment progression. Michael Orth, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech.

“We’ve gone somewhere in the 400-500 student range to 684,” Orth said. “In particular, if you look at the last four years, our new enrollment was about 150 students four years ago. Three years ago, it was 170 students. Last year, it was 200 students. Now, in this current year, it is over 280.”

Reasons for Growth

The Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech was ranked among the top 20 in the country, according to GraduatePrograms.com. The department is equipped with four multimedia classrooms, five specialized teaching and research labs, the largest retail meat cooler on a university campus, and a retail store. Additionally AFS is staffed with faculty members at the forefront of research in topics, including food safety, muscle biology, nutrition, and breeding and genetics.

According to Orth, there are three major reasons why the department has experienced such large enrollment increases: the annual youth camps and activities hosted by the department, the emergent companion animal program, and the implementation of a veterinary school associated with Texas Tech.

“We have livestock, horse and meat judging youth camps, so we have a lot of youth on campus,” Orth said. “In April, we have a lot of local contests here for 4-H and FFA. A lot of kids get exposed to the department. We feel like when people come to Texas Tech, that’s one of the best recruiting tools. If kids come here and they have a good time, they’re more likely to come back.”

The new companion animal program within the department serves as a non-traditional route for pre-veterinary science students who may come from suburban or urban backgrounds, as well as students who may not have an interest in a livestock-centric animal science degree. Orth said the program has given an opportunity to a set of students that comes to the department looking to do something a little different with diversified learning and research opportunities.

Students gather in the atrium to socialize, complete classwork or eat from Cowamongus, the restaurant housed in the animal science building.

Another opportunity students may seek through the Department of Animal and Food Sciences is admission to the forthcoming veterinary school in Amarillo. In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed a budget allocating $4.1 million to the creation of a Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine.

“I really think that just the idea that we might have a vet school has increased the popularity of our program,” Orth said. “And really for getting into vet school, the best major is animal science because of the animal background and teaching that you get.”

Although the overall growth of the department is recognized as a testament to its success, building and program limitations are being brought to the forefront of concern.

“It’s been great to see the growth in the department, but right now we are basically busting at the seams,” Orth said. “We need more facilities. We need more space. That’s becoming a critical issue because if we keep growing at say a 15-20 percent clip, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Right now we are basically busting at the seams.

With the increased student enrollment, faculty and staff are faced with an ongoing lack of available classroom space, office space and teaching laboratories. The overall scarcity of room is becoming a challenge in maintaining the hands-on nature of the program and its production courses.

Nick Hardcastle is a doctoral student in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences. He graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in animal science from Texas Tech and has seen the department grow over the years.

“It’s just crazy to see how much growth animal science has had,” Hardcastle said. “The classes I started off in at Tech only had like 20 people in them, and now that I’m teaching them it’s just these massive classes with like 50 to 60 kids.”

When it comes to maintaining small class sizes to promote student engagement and interaction, faculty and staff, including Orth, have to ask difficult questions.

“As many classes as we can have a laboratory or a hands-on component, and that just gets more and more difficult when you get really big,” Orth said. “Where do you do it? We only have one teaching lab. In the fall we have to ask, ‘Do we meet on Saturdays? Do we meet in the evening?’”

With the increase in undergraduate enrollment, the department is developing new extra-curricular opportunities to engage a wider range of students. Recently, the academic quadrathlon team was restarted and went on to win the southern section competition in 2017. Other opportunities for students include a wider range of study abroad programs, the potential for an animal welfare team, and wool, horse, livestock and meat judging teams.

Hardcastle was a member of the 2013 Texas Tech meat judging team and a coach on the 2016 Reserve National Champion meat judging team.

“I think now that there are so many more students in the department, we’re also seeing a lot more interest in our judging programs,” Hardcastle said. “Our teams now have like 20 kids compared to the eight or nine that other teams have. A lot of those kids end up staying and getting a master’s, too, so the graduate program is seeing growth from that, too.”

As the program and the agriculture industry continue to grow and new opportunities become available to students, the Department of Animal and Food Sciences expects to see continued growth in undergraduate student enrollment, Orth said.

“You know, you’re always going to need food no matter what, and it’s always an important thing,” Orth said. “The animal and food science areas are global industries. You’re interacting. You’re importing, you’re exporting, you’re working with several different countries. It’s expanding.”

Horse statue outside of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences overlooks the doorway students enter for class.

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