Comment: A bit of tongue (alternative protein) in cheek

Mick Calder
Mick Calder

Ever since the advent of burgers made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) in the 1960s, and now with the hype being generated about alternative proteins, Mick Calder has wondered why the creators feel the need to make their alternative protein product look and taste like meat. Are they secret meat eaters or are they genuinely interested in a protein substitute?

A recent report commissioned by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) noted that consumers are looking for alternatives to red meat. Chief executive Sam McIvor commented that “The technology to produce a consumer-ready alternative protein burger is here and is pushing for commercial scale.”

Archer Daniels Midland, the initial inventor of TVP (according to Wikipedia), developed his soy protein using an extruder to make the product in cylindrical form. The TVP was used as an additive or extender in the manufacture of food products; but then some users decided to make it into substitute hamburger patties, with similar colouring and texture to the original meat burger – but not quite the same. The current alternative protein developers are also reported to be aiming at producing alternative forms of ground beef burger patties and meatballs.

But if it is an alternative protein does it need to look and feel like meat? Is it to satisfy some primeval human desire to eat meat while lulling the senses to the fact that it is not the real thing?

If those who espouse the merits of the artificial product on environmental grounds, or even because of a personal distaste for the idea of red meat, then why does the substitute need to take on all or most of the attributes of the stuff they are trying to replace? The products are reported to have more protein, less fat and no cholesterol, which are claimed to be good for you. They also have less calories, so one would question why you would bother to eat it?

If it is so good, why not present it in the form of a log or biscuit, or cornflakes shapes, or even a yeast extract and develop recipes to match, rather than pushing it into the meat sector? It is a processed product so it could be produced in the same form as luncheon sausage slices and then it would look processed. Just think, the main course could be perfectly rounded protein biscuits or deli-style log slices with healthy vegetables, instead of medium rare steak and chips.

Of course, with all the claimed advantages of the alternative proteins, it raises the question of why the B+LNZ report also noted “an untapped demand for naturally raised, grass-fed, hormone-free and antibiotic-free red meat, with consumers prepared to pay a premium for such products”?

The other issue I have with alternative proteins is that they rely on the supply of soy beans and other such plants which will need to be produced in large quantities if the demand for alternative proteins increases. There are geographical and agricultural limits to the extent to which grassland used for grazing animals can be converted to productive arable land, so the prospects for alternative proteins taking out pastoral land are constrained.

Land available for increased production of such crops, over and above the current requirements, is limited unless more tropical rain forests are sacrificed, which implies large scale destruction, conversion, cultivation, additional fertiliser and herbicide use, and genetic modification of seeds, as is happening already in parts of South America and Africa.

So, are alternative proteins going to change the world, or are they just another flash in the pan?

Former secretary for the New Zealand Meat Board and the NZ Lamb Company, Mick Calder was co-author, with Janet Tyson, of Meat Acts, a history of the New Zealand meat industry from 1972 to 1997, which makes fascinating reading (Published 1999: ISBN: 0-9582052-2-1). He has written countless other reports, newsletters and articles for magazines and newspapers. He also maintains his own blog, Agriphile.


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