Plant-based meat- and dairy alternatives have faced a lot of condemnation in recent years. Labeling issues, confusing ingredient lists, and mimicry of their real meat counterparts stir up emotions from consumers and producers alike.
The mystery surrounding alternatives and the blatant attempt to compete with conventional products is an understandable cause for concern; conventional producers and consumers want to protect themselves and ensure that a safe, healthy, and accurately labeled product is put on the grocery store shelves. But, in the midst of all the negative connotations that “plant-based” has drawn throughout much of the agriculture sector, is it really something that wholly awful? Even asking that question probably puts many of you on the edge of your seat.
In steps Olivia Ron. She has a master’s degree in meat and food science, a master’s in nutrition and dietetics, and is a Ph.D. candidate.
“I have worked in food manufacturing and research and development for the last five years,” she explains. “I currently work in technical sales for a company that manufactures specialty blend ingredients for processed meat products. They also currently sell a plant-based system for non-meat products.”
Ron is a meat-eating advocate but wants people to understand that plant-based and meat products can co-exist in a diet. In fact, she’ll tell you it’s necessary. While she stresses that plant-based isn’t a replacement for meat, she wants people to eat what they like and encourages living a healthy lifestyle with an omnivore’s diet.
“When It comes to food — ALL FOODS FIT — a balanced diet includes both meat and plant-based options,” Ron said. “Just because someone selects a plant-based option doesn’t mean that they can’t also integrate meat options as well. Just like I advise people to include all foods they enjoy in their diet within moderation, I believe plant-based options also have a place in any person’s diet. I don’t believe they are a replacement for meat in any way, but it’s always good to have a choice.”
Many critics argue that “plant-based” is undermined by its ingredients list. You might have seen photos listing the multitude of ingredients in a plant-based burger versus a beef patty which only lists one ingredient: beef. This seems questionable to a consumer who doesn’t want a lot of strange-sounding ingredients in their food. However, we must understand that every single thing in existence is a compilation of chemicals that everyday consumers don’t necessarily understand.
Ron states that all chemicals (i.e. the ingredients) inside plant-based meat alternatives are safe to consume. This is because they go through testing and rigorous government oversight to ensure that safety, just like traditional meat does.
“Big ingredients used are pea proteins and Canola oil — some people are up in arms about canola being high in omega 6,” Ron said. “When it comes to omega 6, we need to improve our ratios by eating more omega 3 foods, not fewer omega 6s. Omega 6 fats still lower LDL cholesterol and boost HDL. They also help keep blood sugar in check by improving the body’s sensitivity to insulin. The main issue that people have with omega 6s is that the body can convert linolenic acid to arachidonic acid (AA) — which can promote inflammation and blood clotting, and constrict blood vessels — but the body can also convert AA into molecules that calm inflammation and fight blood clots. Data from dozens of studies support the cardiovascular benefits of eating omega 6 fats (Circulation, Feb 17, 2009). ‘Omega-6 Fats are not only safe, but they are also beneficial for the heart and circulation.’ ”
It seems that the biggest issue with plant-based is misinformation.
“Whenever someone is trying to use fear-mongering and scare people about ‘toxins’ or ‘chemicals’ yet they don’t tell you what chemical they are referring to, the toxic dose, or the dose it occurs in food, then you don’t know if it’s actually a toxic dose. If someone is saying this, then they typically don’t know what they are talking about; they are trying to scare you. Just remember that water can be toxic at certain doses.”
She adds that “All food requires some processing — which allows for increased shelf life and a safer food supply. Processing does not equal bad for health.”
There is a lot to be frustrated about when it comes to marketing labels, and there is a lot of debate about what kinds of diets can be healthy, but what is important is that agriculture is supported and consumers are given a choice and education on the truth about the foods they consume.
As meat industry representatives, we know what it’s like to see beef, pork, and poultry attacked with ridiculous claims. We don’t have to agree with plant-based options, but we can’t create fear over a product that isn’t actually unsafe to consume at the expense of other agriculturalists. We have to pick our battles, and we, as an agriculture industry, have to come together.
Markie Hageman lives in California and is an agribusiness graduate from Fort Hays State University. She is the Communications Coordinator for California Rangeland Trust and is an avid agriculture advocate. Her AGDAILY articles can be found here.