Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer by Will Coggin on June 12, 2019:
Summer is the perfect time to get together with family and friends while cooking burgers on the grill, but this year there may be a new offering on the party menu: fake meat.
Once derided as discs that taste like cardboard, veggie burgers have seen a recent resurgence. A number of national chains are testing plant-based offerings amid consumer interest. The fake meat manufacturer Beyond Meat had a successful launch on the New York Stock Exchange last month.
The growth in fake meat has many primed to write about the success story. But will they also be writing its obituary? Fake meat’s formula for success — mimicking the taste and mouthfeel of real meat — is based on chemical formulas that many health-conscious consumers may find hard to stomach.
Menu labels tell customers how many calories food has, but they don’t tell you what’s in it. In the case of a burger from a cow, the ingredient is pretty obvious: beef. But in the case of the Impossible Burger, offered at major restaurants including Burger King and White Castle, the ingredient list is 21 items long.
Processed meats like bacon have their share of health concerns. They contain additives, namely nitrate — but that’s a chemical we already get primarily from leafy greens, like arugula and spinach. In recent years, the World Health Organization has noted a link between processed meat and cancer. But of course, what matters is the relative lifetime risk and how much you consume. By the WHO’s own standards, a person’s risk for colon cancer increases by 6% per 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily—meaning if you eat four slices of bacon a day.
The problem with meat alternatives is that we’re less aware of the risks, and we often assume “veggie” means healthy even when it doesn’t. Consider: The Beyond Burger has 380mg of sodium, far higher than its ground beef counterpart. Excess sodium can negatively impact the heart. In other words, those who make the switch to fake meat out of concern for their heart are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.