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Which is better for you: "Real" meat or "fake" meat? - Carolyn Beans


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In 2021, a survey of over 1,000 Americans found that nearly two-thirds had eaten plant-based meat alternatives in the past year. Many cited potential health and environmental benefits as their motivation. But are these alternative meats actually better for us and the planet? Carolyn Beans investigates the differences between farmed meat, plant-based meat, and lab-grown meat.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

For an in-depth guide to plant-based meat's history, science, and future, check out this resource guide from The Good Food Institute.

How plant-based meats are made

Basically, plant-based meats are crafted using a combination of plant ingredients that mimic the taste, texture, and even nutritional profile of meats from animals. The process starts with selecting protein-rich plants like soy, peas, or lentils. These plants contain essential building blocks called amino acids, which are the foundations of protein. Plant proteins are extracted and processed to create a meat-like texture, sometimes using heating, cooling, and pressure techniques. This helps align the proteins in a way that resembles the fibrous structure of real meat.

After processing, flavorings, fats, and natural colors are added to enhance the taste and appearance of the plant-based meat. These can include ingredients like vegetable oils, spices, and even beet juice for a red "meaty" color. Once the mixture is prepared, it's shaped into familiar forms like burgers, sausages, or nuggets. Advanced technologies, such as 3D printing and extrusion, are also used to create intricate textures. Finally, the plant-based meats are cooked, packaged, and sent to stores or restaurants for people to enjoy.

Animal Welfare

Because of animal farming practices, the meat industry has been associated with significant harm to animals. Animals are often raised in crowded and confined spaces, where they may be subjected to stressful and unnatural living conditions. Practices such as debeaking, tail docking, and castration are sometimes performed without anesthesia, causing pain and distress to the animals. Parents are often separated from their young. The selective breeding for rapid growth can lead to health issues and discomfort while using antibiotics to promote growth can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The bottom line is that the focus on efficiency and production often overshadows the animals' well-being, and this animal cruelty is often legal.

Alternative meats have the remarkable potential to significantly improve animal welfare by reducing the demand for traditional animal farming. Alternative meats are crafted from plant-based ingredients, requiring no animal slaughter or confinement. By offering consumers a compassionate choice, these innovative products contribute to a decrease in the number of animals raised for food, leading to fewer animals suffering in factory farm conditions. This shift towards alternative meats reflects a growing awareness of the importance of treating animals ethically, fostering a more humane and compassionate approach to our food choices.

Lab-grown or Cultivated Meats

Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat or cell-based meat, is created through an innovative process that begins with a small sample of animal cells, usually obtained through a biopsy from a living animal. These cells are then cultivated in a controlled environment, multiplying and developing into muscle tissue. To encourage growth, the cells are provided with a nutrient-rich culture medium that contains vitamins, minerals, and other essential components. This simulated environment mimics the conditions within an animal's body, enabling the cells to organize and form muscle fibers, which are the building blocks of meat. As the cells continue to grow and differentiate, they naturally create the texture and composition of traditional meat. The result is genuine meat that does not require the extensive resources and ethical concerns associated with traditional animal farming. While the technology is still evolving, lab-grown meat holds promise for a more sustainable and animal-friendly future of food production.

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