Women with veggie burger
A veggie burger with a side of salad.

Portland, OR — On a recent rainy evening, Native Foods Cafe in Bridgeport Village was bustling. Customers crowded around the counter to order burgers, nachos, chicken wings and other dishes, and people were happily digging in after being served.

The “Soul Bowl,” a mélange of beans, rice and veggies, had what looked and tasted like chicken strips on top. However, it wasn’t actual chicken, nor were there any animal products in any of the menu items. According to the chef, this “chicken” contained pea protein, soy and wheat and was made by Garden Protein International in Vancouver, B.C.

The Canadian company’s growing meatless product line is trademarked as Gardein and includes frozen faux entrées including meatballs, pulled pork, chicken patties, sliders, and even cutlets and roasts.

Indicating confidence in the future of such products, Pinnacle Foods Inc., a New Jersey-based conglomerate whose brands include Birds Eye, Duncan Hines and Log Cabin, bought Garden Protein for $154.6 million in 2014.

Pinnacle CEO Bob Gamgort told Food Engineering magazine he believes that “plant-based protein is at the tipping point of becoming mainstream … .”

Food safety considerations Advocates of plant-based protein sources say the risks of pathogens and other health problems is much lower with consumption of meat substitutes than with real meat. However, meatless products can contain liquid smoke flavoring, which may be carcinogenic, and there are lingering questions about additives used in some meat substitutes.

One of the latter is titanium dioxide (TiO2), used as a whitening agent in foods, cosmetics and other products.

Tofu burger
This burger features tofu instead of a real meat patty.

Dr. Joseph Puglisi, a professor of structural biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine who chairs a scientific advisory board for Beyond Meat, said “TiO2 is used in one of our products, but we have eliminated it in our future products.”

How today’s leaders and innovators in the meat substitute industry are adapting to overcome food safety challenges is an open question. Several of them declined to be interviewed for this story.

What is known is that just like U.S. providers of animal-based protein sources, the meat substitute industry must follow HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) rules and other safety requirements. And, like their real meat counterparts, meat substitute providers are regulated and inspected by federal, state and local health and environment officers. On the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates meat and poultry substitutes.

Impossible Foods Inc. responded to requests for comment with a written statement that its food safety challenges are “more easily controlled because our manufacturing process ensures a much higher degree of safety than what you would find in a slaughterhouse.”

The Redwood City, CA-based firm further stated that any pathogens that might be found on plants used in manufacturing its products “are completely eliminated by our suppliers before they are used to make our foods.”

“Unlike animal products, which could be contaminated from various body parts of the animal itself, the only way our products could become contaminated would be through mishandling by production operators. Federal Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) used at Impossible Foods dramatically reduce the risk of any such contamination,” according to the Impossible Foods statement.

Puglisi noted that potential contamination risks and spoilage are much lower with meatless products in general.

In addition, pathogens such E. coli and others grow far more slowly in plant-based products than in meat, and there is not the background of antibiotic treatment of many animals that further exacerbates the problem in the meat industry,” he said.

Human health impacts Some medical experts have long maintained that a primarily plant-based diet is generally healthier for humans and that a meat-based one, particularly processed red meats, can increase the chances of developing heart disease and cancer.

Some medical experts suggest it’s healthier to limit red meat consumption and eat more plant-based products.

“The impact of meat-based diets on human health — cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, obesity and cancer — are clear and highly public,” said Puglisi, adding that he believes Americans are eating less meat these days and that we are in a “transition moment” for plant-based meat substitutes.

This past fall’s report from a research division of the World Health Organization (WHO) asserted that hot dogs, ham, corned beef, sausages, bacon and other processed meats can cause cancer.

However, the panel’s findings were not unanimous, and one meat industry group vigorously disputed the WHO report, stating that it ignored many other studies “showing no correlation between meat and cancer.”

Sustainability and cost The meat substitute industry has been busy developing new products designed to bypass animal agriculture. They claim that plant-based protein is safer and doesn’t pose the same pathogen risks as real meat and that its production requires less land, energy and water.

Tempeh patties
Tempeh patties are often marinated before being added to a dish.

According to a 2009 World Watch report, “livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,564 million tons of CO2e per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide (greenhouse gases).” Reducing that level has been a goal of meat substitute pioneers such as Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, a manufacturer of meatless products based in Los Angeles.

However, depending on how much ingredient processing goes on, the meatless end product might actually use more energy than an animal-based one. A report on the 2015 “protein alternative market” found that 45 percent of meat alternative consumers thought the products were overly processed and 42 percent thought they were too high in sodium.

Price differences can also be an issue, and some plant-based meat substitutes cost more than animal-sourced protein. Despite this, 61 percent of consumers in the 2015 meat alternatives market study agreed that paying more was worthwhile if the products were better for their health.

Land and water use are other areas of contention, with fans of plant-based proteins claiming that water requirements are much lower and that too much of the world’s forests is being razed to grow livestock for meat production.

The global market Despite the ongoing debate over sustainability, cost and appeal, it’s clear that plant-based meat substitutes are becoming more popular with consumers.

Recent projections put the global market for meat substitutes at $5.17 billion by 2020, with the largest share of the market being in Europe. According to one report, soy-based products held more than half of the market share in 2014, followed by tofu and related ingredients at about 41 percent. Frozen products comprised about 78 percent of the total market share.

Experts say that new product launches are expected to push the industry to even higher growth levels in the next few years.

Consumer and industry trends Appeal is a very personal thing when it comes to food items, and meat substitutes are a prime example. Tofu has gotten a reputation for being boring and bland, and Tofurky is an annual joke around more than a few Thanksgiving dinner tables.

Man looking at meat in store
Checking meat prices at the grocery store.

At the same time, a growing number of non-vegetarians are buying less meat and more meat substitutes. In 2013, only about 22 million Americans reported not eating any meat, while more than five times that number — 113 million people — said they were buying meat substitutes.

Meat alternatives have evolved to become more palatable, with companies going to great lengths to get them to taste like the real thing. For example, Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger is scheduled to debut here later this year and promises to replicate beef burgers in every detail.

“We’ve even discovered what makes meat taste like meat: a molecule called heme that occurs naturally in both meat and plants,” the company has revealed. “The result is a plant-based burger that starts out raw and then and looks, cooks, smells, sizzles, and tastes like animal-derived ground beef.”

Impossible Foods’ plans got a hefty boost this past fall in the form of $108 million in new investment from a group of wealthy funders, including Swiss bank UBS, Viking Global Investors, Khosla Ventures and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Major U.S. food industry players are noticing and responding to these trends, with Pinnacle’s purchase of Garden Protein being a case in point. Others have followed suit, with Kraft buying veggie-burger maker Boca Burger and Kellogg’s owning Morningstar Farms, one of the largest producer of vegetarian products in the country. Global fast-food giant Burger King has offered MorningStar’s veggie burger on its menus since 2002.

Holdouts include McDonald’s and Wendy’s, although the latter has been testing a black bean burger in limited markets.

A growing list of meat-substitute products Today’s meat substitutes include well-known plant-based standbys such as tofu and tempeh, and there are several newer products on the market that haven’t become household names. Here are some major ones, although there are many more:

Quorn originated from a 1985 UK joint venture and has attracted controversy because it contains mycoprotein and uses egg albumen as a binder. Some people are sensitive to fungal proteins, and vegans have objected to the inclusion of egg albumen.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has cited illnesses and even deaths from Quorn consumption, although the product’s makers have said that Quorn is safe and less likely to cause allergic reactions than soy, nuts or dairy.

Risofu (pronounced rhee-ZOE-fu) is a rice-based meat alternative touted as tastier and less likely to cause allergy problems than soy-based products.

Seitan strips in broccoli dish
An Asian dish featuring vegetables and strips of seitan.

Seitan (SAY-tan) is made from wheat gluten and is sometimes called “wheat meat.” Seitan must be cooked, has a meaty texture, is high in protein and is often used to replace duck in Asian recipes.

Tofu, or bean curd, results after soy milk is coagulated and then pressed into blocks. It comes in firm, medium and soft textures and easily picks up whatever flavors are added to it.

There are people who avoid tofu and other soy products because, unless the soybeans are organically grown, they are likely to be genetically modified. Also, some say that the isoflavones in soy act like a weakened form of estrogen and therefore may trigger breast or other cancers in women. However, research results to date are unclear.

Tempeh originated in Indonesia and is made from whole soybeans which have been soaked, partially cooked, and then fermented. Tempeh has a firmer texture than tofu and is usually fried and added to sauced dishes.

TVP, or textured vegetable protein, is also called “soy meat” and comes from defatted soy flour resulting from the production of soybean oil. Initially developed by Archer Daniels Midland in the 1960s, TVP wasn’t widely consumed until it was approved for school lunch programs in 1971.

Valess is a dairy-based meat substitute developed in 2002 by a Dutch chemist. After milk proteins are separated, seaweed fibers are added, along with sunflower oil and egg protein. It is currently available in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.

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