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Roberta Louis: How do today’s plant-based meats differ from the veggie burgers of the past, which have been sold in health food stores for decades?
Sara Keough: The veggie burgers of the past mostly utilized vegetables and beans with some spices, herbs, and seasonings added. They were basically made from whole foods that underwent very minimal processing. In contrast, the leading plant-based meats on the market, which primarily include the brands Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, consist largely of ultra-processed ingredients. They contain compounds such as soy protein isolates or pea protein isolates, which are often stripped out of the whole foods through the use of hexane or other harmful chemicals.
These modern plant-based meats are so highly processed that they no longer resemble whole foods. In fact, they barely even support the word plant. They are more like Frankenfood products that have been created in a lab – especially in the case of the Impossible Foods products, because these include novel ingredients such as genetically engineered soy leghemoglobin, which we’ll talk about later. They’re nothing like the veggie burgers of the past.
Roberta: Why is there so much consumer interest in these products?
Sara: When we look at the research surveys that have been done on consumer interest in plant-based meats, it’s very clear that health is a big motivator. There’s a lot of marketing behind these products in promoting the idea that there is a health benefit in moving away from meat, eggs, and dairy and adopting a more plant-based diet. But unfortunately, consumers are buying into a lie and what I consider to be very powerful propaganda.
Animal products have been routinely vilified as promoting heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. However, there is actually no solid evidence to support these claims. In my professional opinion – based on what I see in my clinical practice, as well as what I hear from colleagues and read in the research – animal products from healthy regenerative farms are some of the most nutrient-dense and healing foods on the planet.
People are obviously also concerned about environmental issues, and I think that’s another big draw to these plant-based meats. Again, though, people are buying into a lie that’s being promoted by the plant-based meat advocates. We hear over and over how terrible animal agriculture is for the environment – and it’s true that factory farms such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are destructive to the planet. However, what we’re not hearing is the story about regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is essentially farming with nature, not against it. It involves learning to move away from chemical inputs and instead utilize natural practices, including grazing livestock, to rebuild ecosystems and regenerate soil. I highly encourage your readers to watch the award-winning movie Kiss the Ground so they can see how pasture-raised animals can be part of a healthy, well-functioning ecosystem that can help the planet.
Roberta: So, plant-based meats are not actually healthier than real meat?
Sara: Absolutely not, and we’ll go into more detail shortly about some of the specific ingredients in plant-based meats that are dangerous for human health. But to call these highly processed industrial products “healthy alternatives” to meat strains credulity, to say the least.
When I encourage my patients to include more healthy animal products in their diet, they experience amazing turnarounds in how they feel. I see dramatic improvements in their symptoms and various health biomarkers. For example, their cholesterol levels improve with the addition of more meat into the diet, and inflammation markers decrease. I’ve done some presentations on this topic in which I present patient case studies showing improved health outcomes.
I’m all for consuming plant foods from whole food sources as part of a diverse diet. I also recognize the significance of bio-individuality. Certain people do a lot better with more meat, and some do better on more plant-based diets. But there’s no place for plant-based meats in a human diet. If someone wants to adopt a plant-based diet, I always steer them toward whole foods and educate them on why to avoid the ultra-processed plant-based products.
I also stress that meat is what we have naturally evolved to eat. Humankind has been eating meat for millions of years. If this was harmful to our health, we would never have survived as a species. There is a plethora of research on all the advances humankind made as we learned to eat different parts of the animal. Millennia ago, we were somewhat of a scavenger species. We would crack open animal bones and eat the marrow, which is very nutrient dense – and may have fueled an increase in our brain size.
There are other examples throughout human history where eating some of the most nutrient-dense parts of the animal led to health benefits. Our ancestors consumed organ meats, bone broths, bone marrow, and connective tissue – a lot of things that we don’t eat enough of today. It’s not just eating the meat itself but eating the whole animal, really adopting a nose-to-tail approach, that’s going to offer healing and deep nutrition. In short, eating more of the right type of meat, not the plant-based meats, will help us with our health issues.
Roberta: Would you talk about the environmental impact of plant-based meats in comparison to real meat?
Sara: The ingredients used to produce plant-based meats are very destructive to the environment. They generally come from massive monocrop industrial farming operations that rely heavily on pesticide use, degrade soil health, and contribute to the decrease in nutrients and beneficial microbes in the soil. The plant-based meat advocates think these products are a better option because they result in lower greenhouse gas emissions than industrial animal agriculture. However, they do nothing to restore or regenerate soil and ecosystems.
In a truly regenerative ranch or farm that incorporates livestock in a holistic way, we see absolutely spectacular changes. Soil organic matter increases. Water infiltration also increases, which is a good thing; we don’t want water runoff, which leads to flooding. Birds and other animals come back to the land, and pollinators and other insects increase in number. Biodiversity goes through the roof, which is a major sign of a healthy, functioning ecosystem and suggests that we’re restoring a lot of the nutrients to the soil. Also, by restoring soil health, we can sequester pretty hefty amounts of carbon in the ground, which might actually help with climate change. There’s a lot of published literature on this, although it doesn’t make a big splash in the media and not enough people know about it.
One study that has been popularized in the regenerative agriculture field is the life cycle assessment (LCA) done by an organization called Quantis. In an LCA study, the total environmental impact of a product is assessed – from production through distribution and use – including greenhouse gas emissions. While plant-based meats have been shown to rank lower in greenhouse gas emissions than CAFOs, the Quantis study took it one step further and looked at a regenerative farm. They assessed Will Harris’s farm, White Oak Pastures, in Georgia, and found that it had net negative greenhouse gas emissions.
As this illustrates, when you compare plant-based meat production to regenerative farming operations, you can see that plant-based meats are not the key to restoring our ecosystems. In fact, if you were to spend any amount of time, even just a day, at a regenerative operation and then go to a monocrop soybean farm, you would be amazed at the stark contrast. You would very clearly see that plant-based meats are doing nothing to help our environment.
Roberta: Can people properly assess plant-based meats based on their nutrition facts labels?
Sara: A very interesting survey was done by the International Food Information Council in which participants were shown the nutrition facts labels of a leading plant-based burger and a beef burger, without being told which label belonged to which product. [See box below]. The nutrition facts of these products – particularly some of the macronutrients – were pretty similar because the leading plant-based meat companies have tried to cleverly mimic the fat and protein content of meat. One of the differences is that the plant-based meats have a little bit of carbohydrate, while real meat has none. Based on the nutrition facts alone, 45% of the participants in this survey selected Product A (plant-based burger) as appearing healthier than Product B (real beef).
Then the participants were shown the ingredients list for each burger – and 40% still chose the plant-based meat as the healthier option. This was interesting to me because you can see how highly processed the plant-based burger is with all of its additives and fillers. It contains a long list of ingredients, while the meat only has one ingredient, 100% beef.
Unfortunately, many of these people were attempting to evaluate the nutritional status of the food while ignoring what was actually contained in it. We have to take into account the specific ingredients, including the additives, and consider what chemicals may be found in a product in order to really evaluate its healthfulness. That’s what I teach my patients. I tell them that I don’t care if something is low-carb or high-protein based on the nutrition facts. If it’s made out of toxic junk, there’s no place for it in their diet.
Roberta: Soy and pea protein, found in many plant-based meat products, are widely used in the natural foods industry. Is consuming these isolated proteins comparable to eating whole food soy and peas?
Sara: There’s a huge difference between consuming isolated soy or pea protein and eating these foods in their whole food, traditional forms, especially with soy. Contrary to popular belief, soy was never relied on as a staple food in Asian cultures, but was typically used as a condiment or occasional meal replacement. Today, a healthy, diverse diet might include a bit of organic fermented soy, perhaps in the form of miso soup, or some organic peas with a meal. However, utilizing industrially isolated proteins as a staple food is completely novel to our diet and can pose many health risks.
One major problem with the isolated plant proteins commonly made from legumes, such as soy and peas, is that we’re altering the whole foods in very unnatural ways through the use of high heat and chemical processing. As a result, we’re generating “anti-nutrient” compounds that do not occur naturally in the food and may trigger inflammation, immune reactions, or other health problems. For example, the extraction of soy protein isolates has been known to produce the protein compound lysinoalanine, which was shown in some rat studies to cause kidney and pancreatic damage, and has not yet been extensively studied in humans.
In addition, we are sometimes increasing the amount of natural anti-nutrient compounds that occur in these foods. Consuming small amounts of these anti-nutrients in whole foods may not cause significant problems for most people. However, when they are concentrated in isolated protein powders, I have serious concerns that they may promote digestive disorders, hormone imbalances, and immunologic reactions. I get asked all the time by patients what my favorite protein powder is, and I basically say none of them – especially if they are plant-based, because they will contain concentrated amounts of these harmful compounds.
Soy contains a particularly large number of anti-nutrients. One example of these is goitrogens, which can impact thyroid function. There are also phytoestrogens in soy that act as endocrine disruptors and have been correlated with nervous system dysfunction and some cancers. Other anti-nutrients in soy include saponins, which bind to bile and may damage the intestinal lining; oxalates, which block calcium absorption and have been linked to kidney stones; and aquaporins, which have been associated with neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases. Lectins and phytates are pretty common anti-nutrients in legumes, including soy and peas. Lectins are associated with intestinal permeability and autoimmune disorders, while phytates impede mineral absorption.
Another major problem is our chemical exposure from consuming these isolated protein powders. First, the soy and pea plants are generally sprayed heavily with agricultural pesticides and herbicides, such as glyphosate. Then, the processing methods by which the protein is isolated from the whole food form often involve the use of hexane, which is a known neurotoxin, or other harmful chemicals. I believe this toxic chemical exposure is one of the reasons that we’re seeing a huge rise in pea allergies, especially in children. I’ve heard many allergy specialists describe pea protein allergies as the new peanut allergy.
Soy allergies are also a major problem in our country and have been for a while. In fact, soy is ranked as one of the top eight food allergens in the United States. This probably has to do with a number of issues, such as the genetic modification of soy, the toxic compounds that it’s often sprayed with in industrial agriculture, the use of hexane as a solvent to isolate the soy protein, and the increase in the number of anti-nutrient compounds during processing.
These are things that I think are adding to the allergenicity of what should be somewhat healthy foods for some people, when consumed infrequently in relatively small portions. And, although most people don’t have a true allergy to soy or peas, many will develop a food sensitivity, which does not produce an acute immune reaction but can still lead to chronic health problems such as autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, and neurological conditions.
Roberta: Would you discuss the novel proteins, such as soy leghemoglobin, that are found in some plant-based meat products?
Sara: Soy leghemoglobin (SLH) is a big concern of mine. SLH is a patented ingredient in the Impossible Foods products that gives them a meaty flavor and the appearance of blood, as it mimics the myoglobin, or “heme,” in meat. It is probably one of the most concerning ingredients in their plant-based meats because it’s a new genetically engineered compound with very little safety testing.
In its natural form, SLH exists within the root nodules of soy plants. However, harvesting sufficient quantities of soy plants in order to obtain enough SLH wasn’t feasible for Impossible Foods, so they found a way to create it in a lab. They insert the genetic code for SLH into genetically engineered yeast, grown in a broth of factory-synthesized ingredients, and manufacture it in an industrial bioreactor on a massive scale. There are several problems with this. First, we’ve never before consumed SLH in large quantities, and second, we’ve never eaten this genetically engineered version, so we have no idea what the health ramifications may be.
The only safety studies on SLH were conducted by Impossible Foods’ own researchers, so there may be some bias in how things were reported. The studies were conducted in rats and were of very short duration – only 28 days, while the full life cycle of a rat is two to three years – and the sample sizes were extremely small. Thus, we really don’t know what the long-term health effects of SLH may be in humans.
However, even with the small studies that were conducted, we can see some concerning issues. There was an article published on the website GMOScience.org titled “Rat Feeding Study Suggests the Impossible Burger May Not Be Safe to Eat.” Its co-author, molecular geneticist Michael Antoniou, PhD, carefully analyzed those studies and identified a number of “statistically significant, potentially adverse effects” of feeding the rats the genetically modified SLH. That’s a huge red flag for me. These adverse effects included changes in blood chemistry, decreased clotting ability, decreased reticulocyte count (immature red blood cells), and increased blood globulin values, which is common in inflammatory diseases and cancer.
The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit against the FDA in March for granting GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status to the genetically engineered SLH and allowing it to go to market with inadequate safety testing. Unfortunately, in May, a federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld the FDA’s approval of SLH, so Impossible Foods products can remain on the market.
I am also very alarmed to have recently learned that Impossible Foods has been authorized by the USDA to use Child Nutrition labels, which basically means that its products are approved for use in school nutrition programs for grades K-12. There are actually pilot programs in school districts throughout the United States in which Impossible Foods products are being used in tacos, Frito pies, and spaghetti “meat” sauces. Again, this is all in the absence of long-term safety testing on SLH.
Roberta: What are some of the other problematic additives found in plant-based meats?
Sara: There are a host of additives in the leading plant-based meat products that I consider to be harmful or even toxic for human consumption. For example, yeast extract often contains MSG, a known neurotoxin that has been associated with migraines, increased hypertension, and allergic reactions. Cultured dextrose, a fermented sugar, is often linked to digestive issues. Modified food starch, which is generally a corn derivative, is usually genetically modified and often treated with chemicals that can cause allergic reactions; sometimes it contains MSG as well. Methylcellulose, an emulsifier, can cause gastrointestinal issues and has been linked to colon cancer in animal studies.
These lab-synthesized ingredients can trigger any number of adverse reactions in people or exacerbate various health issues. I am also seriously concerned about the growing evidence that these food additives negatively impact our beneficial microbiota. This is yet another reason that we should be avoiding these ultra-processed products and choosing whole foods as much as possible.
Roberta: Are there problems with the fats contained in these products, particularly from the standpoint of their omega-3/omega-6 balance?
Sara: Although they are trying to mimic the amount of fat that you would get in beef or other animal products, the two most popular brands – Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – are using highly processed polyunsaturated fats, usually canola or sunflower oil. These fats are usually heat processed and rancid, in addition to containing a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, which, in excess, can be highly pro-inflammatory. It has become increasingly clear that most negative health conditions emerge from chronic inflammation.
Our bodies cannot manufacture omega-3s and omega-6s, so we have to obtain them from our diet. And we need both of them. It’s not that omega-6s are bad and omega-3s are good; we just want to make sure we consume these two types of fats in balance. Having too many omega-6s in the diet and not enough omega-3s – an extremely common pattern today – has been linked to inflammatory disorders, including poor cognitive health and digestive issues.
The fats used in plant-based meats are not rich in omega-3s and are further skewing our omega-3 to omega-6 imbalance. In contrast, pasture-raised animals have a fairly significant amount of omega-3s in relation to omega-6s. If we go back to just eating what we were naturally designed to eat – whole, regeneratively farmed meats – we’re going to have a much better fatty acid ratio.
Roberta: Do you have concerns that plant-based meats may pose particular dangers to people with certain health conditions?
Sara: Frankly, I’m concerned for everyone in general, not just those with health conditions. I would never advocate for anyone to consume these products. However, I am most concerned for vulnerable people with chronic diseases.
In my practice, I work with a lot of patients who have autoimmune conditions. Today, we are seeing a significant rise in autoimmunity, as well as digestive disorders and many other chronic diseases. The toxic compounds, anti-nutrients, genetically modified or engineered ingredients, and inflammatory fats in plant-based meats could set off more issues for these sensitive individuals. They could possibly also lead to autoimmune conditions developing in otherwise seemingly healthy people who eat these products long-term, especially as a staple food.
In addition, I worry about the implications for our already very damaged and fragile microbiomes. I would absolutely not want anyone with digestive issues or inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, to be consuming foods like these because I fear how this would impact their gut and immune health. Anyone with a chronic health disorder – for example, cancer, cognitive issues, or any kind of heart problems – should not be eating these foods.
These plant-based meats are just promoting inflammation. That’s the main takeaway I want people to understand. The increased inflammation is going to put a damper on your immune system and affect your cognitive health, your microbiome, and the way your body functions in general.
I also think children are especially at risk, as they’re being exposed to more environmental toxins than ever before in the history of humankind. Their toxic burden is very high, and thus their young immune systems and microbiomes could be badly damaged if we’re adding toxic foods to their diet when they are still growing and developing.
Roberta: Is there anything else our readers should know about these products?
Sara: It’s extremely important that consumers understand that the huge push right now for plant-based meats is part of a very powerful global agenda to take control of our food system. These big food tech corporations make no secret about the fact that it is their mission to essentially end all animal agriculture and traditional ways of farming worldwide.
Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, has said that they want to make it economically unsustainable to raise cows. It is his company’s stated mission to completely replace animals in the food system by 2035. Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, said in an interview: “We want to make the existing product on the shelves obsolete.”
I consider these statements to be a direct attack on traditional agriculture and farming, which are the lifeblood of our rural communities in the United States. These communities have been struggling for at least the last hundred years, largely due to corporate and political interests. Two books that were very influential for me and helped enlighten me about these problems are The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, who is one of my personal heroes, and Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter. These amazing books shed light on what’s happening to our agricultural communities.
There’s no question that we need to change the way we farm in this country to adopt more regenerative practices. However, we have to support our agricultural regions and help them to make these transformations or they will just continue to fall apart. Plant-based meats instead threaten our farming communities by increasing industrial agriculture
I highly recommend everyone follow the work of people like Dr. Vandana Shiva and Dr. Frédéric Leroy. Vandana Shiva is a renowned environmental activist who speaks out against glyphosate use and GMOs, and Frédéric Leroy has done extensive research on the global organizations that are part of the initiative to end animal agriculture.
It’s frightening that so many people are buying into this initiative and accepting the belief that plant-based meats are healthier for our bodies and the environment. A well-known German meat producer that has been around for decades is now transitioning almost exclusively to plant-based products – and their sales have been phenomenal. Even consumers who are quite health conscious are falling prey to the powerful marketing from the plant-based meat companies.
We can’t be complacent or passive about this problem. It’s not enough for consumers to say, “Oh, I’m not going to eat that stuff.” They have to work to make sure this agenda is not successful by educating others. Thus, we must create a massive amount of awareness among consumers about the dangers these products pose to our health, our environment, and our food system.
For more information on plant-based meats, read Sara Keough’s three-part blog series titled “Artificial Animals” at UnderstandingAG.com.
Sara Keough, MS, CNS, LDN, is an “Eco-Nutritionist” who began her career in ecological work in her home state of Colorado and now practices as a clinical nutritionist in Maryland. She supports patients with a wide variety of health conditions, including digestive issues, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic disorders. Educating patients on the value of nutrient-dense foods and rewilding their microbiomes by consuming food from local, regenerative farmers is vitally important in her practice, as this is an essential component of their healing process. Sara utilizes advanced functional testing to address the root cause of her patients’ issues and to regenerate their health from the ground up. She is passionate about connecting our farming communities with the healthcare community, as she truly believes that regenerative farmers are healers of the planet and play a pivotal role in restoring human and ecological health. She can be reached at: [email protected]
Roberta Louis is managing editor of the Price-Pottenger Journal and founder of Shaman’s Drum Foundation.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Summer 2021 | Volume 45, Number 2
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