When the ancient Greek hero Theseus returned from battle, they say that his ship was kept in the harbour as a museum piece. With time, the wood began to rot and the planks began to decay. Soon, pieces of the ship had to be replaced, one by one. It came to the point that after a long time had passed, every piece of the ship had been replaced, gradually.
Philosophers began to ask - is this a new ship, for every piece of it is a replacement part? Or given that its structure, appearance and even beauty remained the same - is it not the same old ship? This puzzle from ancient Greece called the "Ship of Theseus" is unanswered to this day.
Hark! It is 2021, and a similar puzzle plays out in the field of nutrition. We are talking about vegetarian meats. From aspiring vegetarians to climate change champions, everyone has been fascinated by the concept of vegetarian meats. Why? Because for one, a vegetarian diet is compassionate towards animals and second, large scale culling of animals is not sustainable. Imagine (a purely hypothetical example) that the sun has given 100 million calories to a piece of earth. Plants and trees on that patch of land give us 10 million calories from the sun's bounty. If we send goats and cows to graze on the crop, those ten million calories would be consumed by animals. And then human beings "grazing" on these animals would get only 1 million of the ten million calories eaten by animals. By eating animals, we have thus not consumed 9 million calories. However, if we had eaten the plants directly, we would have prevented our planet from heating up, to some extent.
Governments all over the world are increasingly becoming aware of this. Companies selling meat and meat products, especially in Western nations, are recognizing this as an opportunity and are investing big time in mock meats so that human beings can take in an environmentally friendlier alternative. These meats are created in two ways - one is by producing them from already known ingredients like soybean with additives to obtain the flavour of the meat. The second way is the lab-grown meat where real animal cells are cultured and grown to create the exact texture and taste of meat. Both methods have resulted in prototype products available for purchase, but these are still in their early stages of development.
We cover the topic of vegetarian meat and alternative proteins in this issue of Diabetes Health. These products are compassionate in the sense that no animal killing is involved. But from a scientific perspective, they are ultra-processed, expensive to make and do have disadvantages. To find out more about this topic, read our cover story.
Let us go back to the "Ship of Theseus" puzzle, now applied to mock meats. Lab-grown meats are made from cultured animal cells and are the truest replica of meat, retaining some structure and flavour.
However, they are not really meat, as they are not obtained from living animals directly. So, are they the same old meat, or are they new forms of food? We may never know. Like adapting to various contradictions in life, we must also accept this paradoxical oxymoron that is "vegetarian meat"!
Dr Unnikrishnan AG