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Beyond the Beef: A look Into “Fake Meat” Alternative Proteins

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As I sat on a bar stool in Koloa, Hawaii this past week, waiting on my supper, I overheard a person ask their friend two seats down from me, “What’s the point of the Beyond Burger anyway? It’s basically a real burger.”

Cue me blinking one too many times with a look as if to say, “Please tell me I’m not the only one who heard this?” 

This brief encounter made me realize once again how big certain issues can be to someone and how minute they can be to another. The fight between traditional protein and alternative protein – fake meat – has been something I have paid close attention to for four-plus years now. 

It dang near baffled me when I overheard someone who didn’t know the common ingredient list in alternative proteins; the calorie comparison of fake to traditional meat; heck, this person probably didn’t even realize there was an issue between stock growers and anti-ag driven, alternative protein companies.  

This realization is why today, I want to give you a brief overview of popular alternative proteins.

What even is “fake meat?”

Fake meat is exactly what it sounds like: fake meat. It’s a food product made up of ingredients which attempt to mimic the taste and texture of meat, without all the bull – pun intended. In other words, it’s like the Diet Coke of meat.

Two of the biggest fake meat producers are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Both companies have their products in stores and on the menu in chain and local restaurants across the country. These companies take a mixture of powders, flavorings and food colorings to create products which pose as traditional meats like burger, sausage, bacon – the works. This brings me to the ingredient.

What’s in “fake meat?”

Let’s compare a packaged Beyond Burger to packaged traditional ground beef.

Here’s the laundry list of Beyond’s burger ingredients: water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, dried yeast, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, and less than one percent of potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, beet juice color, apple extract, pomegranate concentrate, sunflower lecithin, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, vitamins and minerals (zinc sulfate, niacinamide [vitamin B3], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], cyanocobalamin [vitamin B12], calcium pantothenate).

Here’s the extensive list of ingredients in a pound of traditional ground beef: beef.

Now, here’s an argument for you: Not all processed foods are considered “bad for you.” However, processed foods run the risk of being higher in sugar, sodium and fat – all of which are higher in a fourth-pound beyond burger patty than they are in a fourth-pound traditional beef patty. Which brings me to my next point.

Is “fake meat” healthier?

In order to answer this question, we must first define our terms. Because there’s a million definitions on the internet, y’all will have to settle for my short “test” to see if something is considered healthy in my book.

Question one: How many calories? Keeping our example of alternative and traditional quarter-pounders, traditional beef wins. Traditional beef has 170 calories, while Beyond has 230.

Question two: How much of the big three: fat, sugar and sodium? Beyond has higher numbers again, garnering 14 grams of fat, zero grams of sugar and 390 milligrams of sodium. Traditional beef? Eight grams of fat, zero grams of sugar, 70 milligrams of sodium. 

So, by my definition, traditional beef is healthier than Beyond Beef.

Keep in mind, this is just my definition of what I consider “healthy.” The numbers may be facts here, but my definition is opinion. 

However, looking line by line on each of these items’ nutrition labels, Beyond Beef has higher numbers in every category except cholesterol – Beyond has zero milligrams, beef has 65 milligrams – whether you like them or not, you can’t argue with numbers.

What’s all the fuss?

I wrote this subhead and couldn’t help but chuckle. How much time do you have? This is the part of the column where I take full advantage of the whole “columns are the opinion of the columnist” bit.

The fuss started a few years ago, when Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown claimed he wanted to abolish animal agriculture, completely, by 2035. Seeing as animal agriculturists provide nourishment for a reported 98 percent of United States citizens, these comments weren’t taken too kindly. Beyond Beef CEO Ethan Brown, of no relation, has a similar public opinion of animal ag.

Since these comments were made, it’s been an all-out war between agriculturists and anti-ag activists and it really all boils down to this: If an industry is feeding 98 percent of a population – millions of people – and it’s providing nutritious, affordable, tasty meals for consumers, why would you want to take it down?

I, a self-proclaimed agvocate, wouldn’t have a problem with Impossible or Beyond had the companies’ leadership not gone out of their way to publicly bash and straight up lie about animal agriculture on multiple occasions.

From their hateful comments to the promotion of falsified animal-ag related climate statistics, these two people have given me a bad taste in my mouth about alternative proteins. And I’m not just talking about the time I tried a Beyond Burger for experimental purposes and it reminded me of wet dog food.

The bottom line

Bringing it home to the original reason I wrote this column today: the comment I overheard while on my honeymoon.

Alternative proteins, or “fake meat,” is exactly as their titles state. They are alternatives to meat; they are fake versions of meat. 

They are not the same as traditional meat and, in my opinion, should not be treated as such. You can have all the facts in the world, you can compare nutrition labels, you can debate over ethical reasons for this diet and ethical reasons for that diet, but at the end of the day, you can’t change the fact that a Beyond Burger is not a real burger.

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