Recently, on a trip abroad, I tried out some new versions of 'vegetarian' meat. The concept of vegetarian meat is not new. The term is certainly not an oxymoron any more. Vegetarian burgers, which mimic meat, have been available for decades.
However, the thought-process behind the design and manufacturing of vegetarian meats has now undergone a paradigm shift. The earlier forms of vegetarian meat were for the vegetarians who wished to have a meat-like experience. However things are changing and currently these vegetarian meats are produced and marketed mainly keeping the non-vegetarian consumer in mind.
Why would a non-vegetarian wish to eat vegetarian meat, containing substances like soy, oils and even jackfruit? The most important reason is the growing realisation that meat-producing animal "factories" may have ill-effects on species diversity, global warming and climate change. Non-vegetarian diets also lead to land and water waste. One will need to feed an animal ten calories of plants to obtain one calorie of meat. Hence, from a planetary health perspective, we are realising that non-vegetarianism could waste our precious resources. The other reason why non-vegetarians may want to switch to vegetarian diets is the obvious issue of animal cruelty. Would any non-vegetarian enjoy seeing an animal being beheaded for a slice of flesh? These issues, in addition to disruptive innovation in the food industry are together fuelling the rise of vegetarian meat. Indeed, big players in the meat industry, realising the trend, are investing in vegetarian meats, so that they can be future-ready.
But is vegetarian meat truly healthy? The answer is that it is as healthy or as unhealthy as non-vegetarian meat! On one side is the fact that this vegetarian meat is a processed food which makes it less healthy. On the other hand, this meatless meat would not have problems of real meat; say for instance, heightened cancer risk.
Back to my meeting with meatless meat, the taste of vegetarian meat was reasonably close but not close enough that one couldn't tell the difference. But the thought to be pondered is if a few servings of vegetarian near-meat can save even one animal's life, is that not something worth considering?
In future, we could have better near-meat developed from animal and even plants by cell culture. Part of that future is already here – scientists are now using yeast cells to produce heme protein which is a molecule that binds to another protein called globulin. This results in the formation of haemoglobin, which is the main oxygen carrying agent in blood. Scientists have developed a variant of heme protein that imparts the red, juicy colour and texture of real meat. In future, it may be harder to tell the difference. And what's next, after meatless meat?
Egg-less eggs or milk-less milk may possibly be coming one day to a grocery store near you or on your favourite grocery app!
Vegans avoid all animal-based foods, including meat, dairy and eggs. Generally speaking, we do not endorse vegan diets. But for people with Diabetes, we do endorse a non-meat diet. However, recognising the growing and positive trend of vegetarianism, we decided to discuss the pros and cons of the vegan diet.
Dr Unnikrishnan AG