Airline food

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister (then Acting PM) complained recently about a burger on his national airline. The burger is the Impossible Burger, a moist, meaty-tasting burger made entirely from vegetarian products and has the ability to “bleed” like real ground beef – in blind tastings, several professional cooks have confirmed it tastes better than real burgers.

Closer to home, France recently legislated against vegetarian foods being sold as “burgers” or “sausages”, even if they are shaped like burgers and sausages.

These are examples of governments pandering to their huge livestock industries, and they are blowing against the wind. New vegetarian foods which simulate meat, packed with flavour and nutrition, produced with technology unheard of even 15 years ago, are the future of food. It is certain we will see supermarkets selling these ultra-modern foods (UMF) in huge quantities once the food industry manages to reduce cost of production.

Cost

A good UMF burger currently costs around 50% to 100% more than a comparable premium beef burger. This sounds expensive but the original gluten-free loaves used to cost three times (300%) the price of normal bread, and they tasted like flip-flops.

However, the real cost of the beef burger is much higher – and you do not get charged money for it because this cost is not counted in terms of money, and everybody in the world is forced to pay for meat. More on this later.

Technology

The production of UMFs uses some of the latest food technologies available, including genetic engineering, to recreate the textures, flavours and characteristics of real meat. Although most of these techniques are proprietary, researching around the subject indicates that UMFs use plant proteins from grains, root vegetables, beans, fungi and other non-meat sources to simulate the textures and taste of meat.

The curious red juice or “blood” which oozes from some UMFs can be modified beetroot or other vegetable juices, or in at least one case, made from genetically-modified (GMO) yeast which synthesises a close relative of myoglobin (the red juice of meat) called leghemoglobin which is normally found in the roots of soy plants.

GMO

Although some might recoil at eating GMO food, there is one important difference between genetically synthesising taste compounds and synthesising compounds used for pest control. For example, the anthrax-related insect-killing Bt-toxin found in GMO corn is introduced by splicing bacterial genes from bacillus thuringiensis into corn DNA so that corn plants themselves produce Bt-toxin even more efficiently than bacillus thuringiensis. If you are curious, please read “The verdict’s still out on genetically modified food”.

For UMFs, genetic engineering is applied to prolific organisms such as yeast to induce the production of isomers of non-toxic taste compounds. This is much the same technology used in the manufacture of medical insulin. As there is no replication of toxic compounds involved, no health concerns are presented. These GMO compounds are then used to add flavours/textures to UMFs.

Taste

Taste is probably the most critical factor in the acceptability of UMFs, and technology may have solved this complicated issue. Standard vegetarian ingredients are treated using non-standard techniques (eg. enzymatic reactions, fermentation, dessication and reconstitution, etc) to alter textures, taste profiles – and in some cases even chemical compositions. The results are new ingredients which taste remarkably like animal proteins, with nutrition profiles roughly comparable to meats.

As an aside, a reason raw meat “bleeds” is because of the heme in myoglobin, the red liquid in meats people often confuse with blood. This iron-based compound makes myoglobin reddish and this colour is often taken as a sign of tenderness and freshness. Cooking changes the colour of myoglobin to beige. However, the taste of meat is the summation of several hundred different compounds – and oxidation/spoilage of some of these compounds leads to a loss of taste in meat. Hence, although vegetarian substitutes of myoglobin such as leghemoglobin may lead to a better visual perception, the actual reason why many UMFs taste great is simply because they contain complex compounds carefully engineered to simulate the taste of meat. These compounds, being plant-based, are less likely to spoil easily – therefore UMFs can stay fresh and tastier for longer as they do not oxidise as quickly as meat.

Why?

There are several good reasons UMFs should be adopted to replace animal-based proteins.

For a start, the production of meat is appallingly inefficient. For every 1,000 calories fed to a cow, we get back only 30 calories of meat, a loss of 97% of the original energy provided. This is comparable to using a 100W bulb and getting the output of an imperceptible 3W toy light.

Another reason is environmental. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation estimated in 2013 each kilo of beef generates up to 1,000kg of greenhouse gases (GHG). But according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, each kilo of beef produces 295kg of GHG – so let us take the lower number. In the US where on average everyone eats 26kg of beef a year, almost 2.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are caused by 325 million Americans alone. Over 55% of all agricultural land is now used for producing animal feed. As demand for meat presently still seems to be growing globally, the environmental toll can only increase. This is the hidden cost of meat mentioned earlier – we do not pay for this cost in monetary terms, but eventually our descendants will pay for our meat today. More at “Vegetarianism and other dietary tales – Part 5”.

The Impossible Burger. Could meatless burgers be better for us than packaged meats? Photo: impossiblefoods.com

Why not?

If we can accept that sausages, burgers and packaged meats are not actually real meat, and in some cases mostly animal by-products, it is only a small step to recognising that if something tastes just as good, then it may be safer and healthier to eat the alternative option. You will also avoid eating additives such as antibiotics, growth hormones, artificial conditioners, colours and preservatives. I would also add pesticides as food grown for animal consumption do not meet the same standards as for humans.

So for people on the Carnivore Diet, it actually makes more sense to follow a diet based on UMFs, especially as research indicates excessive eating of animal protein significantly reduces lifespans.

Shrimp eyes

We all know about the appalling conditions of most animals reared for meat, but it seems we still do not know enough. Some cattle are injected with papain (a powerful papaya-based enzyme for tenderising meat) prior to being slaughtered. Female shrimp have their eyes physically cut out to encourage them to breed faster, in a process called eyestalk ablation – and then they are thrown back into (usually) filthy pools. Hens have their beaks burnt off to stop them hurting each other in (extremely) crowded farms. All this is done to sell more animal protein, when new modern food technologies are available to eliminate such incredible cruelty.

Maillard reaction

Since UMFs are also proteins (ie, chains of amino acids), cooking them can utilise the same techniques as with meats. Include some simple sugars, heat above 135°C on a pan and UMF proteins will brown and create Maillard compounds just as for meats. In fairness, the taste is often different but this can be mitigated by using small quantities of meat at the browning stage of cooking. A simple trick is to brown a little organic minced meat in a hot pan before adding UMF proteins when making a stew – the taste difference is negligible, even to a fussy meat-lover such as myself.

For details, please read “The Maillard reaction”.

Nutrition

It is often suggested that plant protein is somehow inferior to animal protein. There is absolutely no basis for this claim in modern society – in fact there are no known incidents in the EU for protein-deficiency diseases such as marasmus and kwashiorkor despite several countries having 9% (or more) of the population as vegetarians.

Having a wholly non-meat diet may raise only one major issue: Vitamin B12.

A normal human body requires 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 every day, which is an important nutrient used in red blood cells, DNA, repairing nerve cells and other functions. Vegetables do not have this vitamin, and the body cannot manufacture it – hence it must come from the diet. Although commonly found in meats, vitamin B12 can also be found in fortified breads and cereals, along with cheeses and eggs.

Health, anyone?

Perhaps the best aspect of UMFs (apart from tasting good) is that they are also inherently healthier and more convenient than meat. There is often no need to add greens to UMF-based meals as fibre is usually automatically included. They reduce the dispersal of pathogens (toxic bacteria) around the kitchen, stay fresh longer and retain nutrition better. It is also important to acknowledge that meat has also changed its profiles over the decades – for example, modern battery chickens would be considered freakish mutants less than 75 years ago: “The story of a superchicken”.

Flexitarian

However, there is no need to drop meat completely, as people can elect to be flexitarians, and enjoy the widest range of foods available via the latest technologies while reducing our ecological footprint by cutting unnecessary meat consumption. If Americans can cut beef consumption to 15kg annually instead of 26kg, that alone can eliminate over one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.