Fake Meat vs. Real Meat

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Millennials are gobbling down plant-based burgers, prompting meat producers to question the health benefits of “ultra-processed imitations.”

Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times Anahad O’Connor

  • Dec. 3, 2019

The meat industry has a warning for consumers: Beware of plant-based meat.

That is the message behind a marketing campaign by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a public relations firm whose financial supporters have included meat producers and others in the food industry. In recent weeks the group has placed full-page ads in The New York Times and other newspapers raising health concerns about plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, which are designed to look, taste and even appear to bleed like real meat.

The ads call them “ultra-processed imitations” with numerous ingredients. “What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?” asks one ad featuring a sad face made of two patties and sausage. Another directs readers to a site that compares plant-based burgers to dog food. In November, the group’s managing director, Will Coggin, wrote an opinion piece in USA Today that labeled fake meats as ultra-processed foods that can spur weight gain, although the research on processed foods has not included plant-based meats. A few days later, the center’s executive director, Rick Berman, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing plant-based meats as highly processed and no healthier than meat. Its headline: “‘Plant-Based Meat’ Is All Hat and No Cattle.”

Impossible Foods, which makes a popular plant-based burger, said the campaign was misleading and fear-mongering. The company says plant-based meat alternatives are better for consumers and better for the planet, requiring less land and water and producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions than meat from cattle. The new “disinformation” campaign, they say, is a sign that Impossible Foods’ mission — to disrupt the meat industry and replace animals in the food system — is working. “It’s a point of pride to have that organization come after us,” said Pat Brown, the company’s chief executive. “It’s hard to imagine a stronger endorsement.” (The Center for Consumer Freedom did not respond to requests for an interview.)

ImagePlant-based foods like the Impossible Burger are designed to look, taste, even bleed like real meat. Plant-based foods like the Impossible Burger are designed to look, taste, even bleed like real meat.Credit…Con Poulos for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.

Unlike other vegetarian meat substitutes, the new plant-based burgers are winning over meat lovers. The market research firm NPD Group says that 90 percent of the customers purchasing them are meat-eaters who believe the products are more healthful and better for the environment, said Darren Seifer, an analyst at NPD, which recently predicted that plant-based meats will have staying power because of their popularity with millennials.

“The two big brands, Beyond and Impossible, have replicated the burger experience without having to sacrifice the taste of the burger,” he said. “So now a lot of consumers feel like they have a healthier option, they are reducing the amount of meat they consume, and they just feel better about that.”

But are plant-based meats really better for you than meat? It depends on how you eat them, said Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Replacing a hamburger with a plant burger is not an improvement in diet quality if you chase it with French fries and a sugar-laden soda, Dr. Hu said.

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