The Great Protein Debate | TSLN.com

The Great Protein Debate

Megan Silveira
for Tri-State Livestock News

In the ongoing, heated debate regarding the ingredients accepted in a burger patty, it seems as if the options and opinions are fairly black and white. You either strongly support hefty patties comprised of “real beef,” or you happily opt for the newer, modern option of plant-based patties. To further muddle the debate? Meat is even being grown in labs instead of harvested from livestock.

Despite opinions often expressed so vocally, the question still remains: what do we really know about both sides of this dining debacle? Before jumping on a soap box and proudly proclaiming the view we have on the subject, we should beef up our knowledge on all three sources of protein and their nutritional values.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in the media, but I think there’s a perceived misconception to the negatives of consuming animal protein and the sustainability of agriculture,” said Sheri Glazier, registered dietician.

While Glazier herself is involved in the cattle industry, she said she always strives to look at nutrition from a factual standpoint and works to eliminate her personal bias when speaking on nutrition.

The nutritional recommendation for a “perfect plate” calls for 25 percent high quality protein, Glazier said. She said this “25 percent of the plate” recommendation measures out to a portion roughly the same size as a deck of cards.

There are two different types of protein, Glazier said. High-quality protein sources, like animal meat and soy, contain the essential amino acids, while incomplete proteins, like rice and beans, provide some but not all of the essential amino acids.

Glazier said meat substitutes made of ingredients such as black beans and soy have been popular for years, but recent months have given rise to the new imitation-meat patties. She said the nutritional value of these are somewhat difficult to track, as the technology behind their production is constantly changing, but certain aspects remain consistent with imitation meat.

“When you take a closer look, the meatless type are actually higher in saturated fat, total fat and sodium,” she said. “They appear to be highly processed and are not going to be able to provide the same 10 essential nutrients that beef can provide naturally.”

With popular fast food chains jumping in on the trend, burgers have seemed to be one of the main point of interest in the protein debate. In the recent months, two plant-based meat companies have risen to the top of the food chain – the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger.

The Beyond Burger grants itself the title of “the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef without the GMOs, soy, or gluten.”

The Beyond Burger’s brother patty, the Impossible Burger, looks towards soy as its major source of protein. The company’s website claims an essential molecule called heme can be found in abundance in animals. It’s what they said, “makes meat taste like meat.” DNA is extracted from soy plants and inserted into a genetically engineered yeast, which is fermented to produce heme.

Glazier said the technology currently being used to produce this genetically engineered molecule is new enough that no research has been done to see if there are actual differences between manufactured heme and the naturally occurring heme in animal-proteins.

“From my perspective as a dietician, mom and agriculturalist, I think including animal protein in your diet is a more efficient way of meeting your dietary needs with fewer calories,” she added.

Another key point in the debate lies not with the concept of plants, but with the production source of the meat, Glazier said. The production of ground beef patties stems from an industry employing full utilization of the earth’s resources in an efficient and natural way.

Advances in technology have enabled the production of meat in the lab environment. This concept gives way to a phenomenon called “cell cultured protein” or CCP. This alternative to meat harvested from livestock results in a product genetically identical to the beef we consume produced on the farm.

Mosa Meat is a company based in Netherlands serving as one of the company paving the way for CCP. The company’s website said they extract myosatellite cells, or the stem cells of muscle, from cattle during a biopsy under anesthesia.

The company presents their CCP as a product capable of helping me the growing demand for beef in future years. The company’s website also pushes the sustainability of their process for producing meat.

“The function of these stem cells within the animal is to create new muscle tissues when the muscle is injured,” the website said. “It is this inherent talent of the stem cells that is utilized in making cultured meat.”

The extracted cells are then placed in a medium with nutrients and “naturally-occurring growth factors” and allowed to proliferate in a process the website said is identical to the natural growth process in livestock.

The cells will continue to reproduce until a small sample results in trillions of cells that begin to differentiate into muscle cells and form myotubes, primitive muscle fibres. These fibres are placed in a gel composed of a majority of water which helps the cells form the shape of the muscle. From a single sample, the company said they can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue, enough meat to make 80,000 quarter pounders.

While this manufactured meat has the same composition as meat harvest from an animal, Jacob Nelson, meat products specialist at the Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State University, said CCP cannot yet be defined as meeting the criteria of the term “meat.”

“Muscle becomes meat after an animal dies and the post-mortem muscle metabolic processes continue in the absence of the body’s blood supply, until all the processes cease,” Nelson said.

Nelson said scientists behind the CCP process cannot yet answer the question if these cells experience death, post-mortem glycolysis and rigor mortis once they are removed from their growth media. With this in mind, it is currently unknown if CCP offers the same nutritional value in the diet, he added.

“While CCP and real meat are genetically identical, they are not psychically identical since CCP does not undergo rigor mortis,” Nelson said. He said he is eager to see what more work with this product will reveal about the differences between it and real meat.

Consumers have to realize over 80 percent of the land cattle graze on is not suitable for crop production, Glazier said. Those livestock are capable of taking non-nutrient rich grasses incapable of being consumed by runs and turning those grasses into nutritious protein capable of meeting the dietary needs of the world’s population.

Despite all these various differences in production and composition, it seems the price range for all these types of meat are fairly comparable. Naturally produced ground beef comes out to be the cheapest, while CCP meat is most expensive of the three options.

At the end of the day, Glazier said an individual’s nutritional needs can be met with all three types of “meat.” The debate is one Glazier said stems from personal preference and opinion. She encourages people to eat what can both provide for their bodies and their happiness.

“As a dietician, nutrition is vastly important to me,” she said, “but I don’t want anything to take away from the aspect of one’s emotional and physical well-being.”

Her biggest piece of advice is to seek out information regarding the nutritional value of all food from a registered dietician. Glazier said individuals should employ caution when it comes to nutritional information being published and always consider the sources the information comes from rather than just believing everything published.