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meat 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.”

Meat Science Professor Focuses on Opportunities for Students

Dr. Dale Woerner provides assistance to graduate student Blanchefort Djimsa.

ale Woerner is known for his excellence in meat science, but more importantly, known by the passion he has for his students.

Woerner, a researcher in meat science was awarded the Cargill Endowed Professorship in Meat Science Sustainability in the Texas Tech Department of Animal and Food Sciences in August 2018.

“Cargill wanted someone in the industry that was known for conducting research, and for training,” Woerner said. “I was fortunate enough to earn the position.”

Woerner spent the past 13 years at Colorado State University where he earned his doctoral degree, was an associate professor, and coached the meat judging team. Being a professor and the meat judging coach was not enough for Woerner, he also served as a member of Colorado State’s Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence, and the university’s Center for Meat Safety and Quality.

Woerner touched the lives of many during his time at Colorado State. Taylor Horton, a meat science graduate student at Texas Tech, followed Woerner from Colorado State where she had him as a professor and judging coach.

“When I met Dale, I was a freshman, washing dishes for a graduate student.” Horton said. “He took the time to come ask me my name, where I was from, and then remembered that the next time he saw me. I feel like that just says a lot about who he is because he cares about the individual so much and he is very vested in the individual and how he can help them achieve their goals.”

“The sky is the limit…”

Woerner said he is thankful for the relationships he made at Colorado State that motivated and helped him to be where he is today.

“Both my wife and I are originally from Texas, so we wanted to move back to be closer to family, and as alumni, we are also extremely excited to be back at Texas Tech,” Woerner said.

Woerner was chosen in 2018 as a Texas Tech Distinguished Alumni in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources in 2018. Tracee Murph, coordinator of alumni relations for CASNR, said the distinguished alumni award recognizes and honors graduate, whose achievements and careers have greatly represented the college and to the professions associated with agriculture and natural resources.

“To be chosen as a distinguished alumnus is a huge honor for any individual,” Murph said. “With his research background and previous successes at Tech and Colorado State in meat science, Dale Woerner’s nomination was clearly considerable.”

Being the first holder of the Cargill Endowed Professorship, Woerner hit the ground running. Woerner said the endowment professorship has allowed him to equip the laboratory to a higher level, and to be more capable of doing more for the industry.

“Cargill’s goal in sustainable meat science is to improve the way we produce meat, but also making sure there is a supply of individuals to work in the industry,” Woerner said.

Dale Woerner beams with pride as the first Cargill Endowed Professorship recipient.

Woerner said the level of education a student can receive in classrooms, nationwide is comparable, but what Texas Tech does exceptionally well and that Cargill and others in the agriculture field recognize, are the extracurricular opportunities.

Horton said before following Woerner, she knew Texas Tech’s animal and food science program was very prestigious.

“I think Dale represents the program as how it is known,” Horton said.

Woerner said the extracurricular opportunities, such as Texas Tech’s meat judging, market animal evaluation, and quiz bowl teams, help drive student’s interest in meat science.

“I believe that is what Cargill recognized years ago, and why they decided to make a contribution to Texas Tech,” Woerner said.   

Recently, Woerner met with Texas Tech’s Department of Hospitality and Retail Management, which has an interest in joining forces with the animal and food sciences and wildlife management departments to meet a new demand for people to manage hunting lodges. Hunting lodges are looking for individuals educated in food production as well as the animals being hunted on their properties.

“If you told me before I came to Tech seven months ago that I would be talking to someone about processing and cooking meat for a wild game hunting operation and working with chefs and people who manage hotels and restaurants, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Woerner said.

Woerner said students are offered to specialize and find something they are passionate about and make it a career.

“This is huge,” Woerner said. “The sky is the limit; your career is completely chosen by what you do here.”

Woerner has a passion to open new opportunities for not only his students, but students from other colleges at Texas Tech.

“You always hear those management strategies that it’s not just about getting the right people on the bus, it’s about finding them the right seat,” Horton said. “Dale is excellent at that.”

Woerner said by interacting and supporting his students as much as he can is how he plans to make a difference.

“I hope in the future, I broaden opportunities not only in the college of agriculture, but for other colleges at the university,” Woerner said.

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