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Health halo: Is fake meat the real deal?

22 minutes


Photo of a woman

Christine Parker

University of Melbourne

Episode Notes

Many people switch to a meat-free diet on the basis that it’s a healthy lifestyle choice with a low carbon footprint. But can we really believe the hype when it comes to vegan meat products?

In this episode, Professor Christine Parker from the University of Melbourne Law School serves up the truth on the rise of imitation meat products and dives into who is responsible for ensuring the claims made on their labels are accurate. Get ready to sink your teeth into this captivating episode on ethics and the implications of the vegan meat industry. 


Corey (00:02):

All right. We’ve just thrown four or five different types of plant-based meats into the pan, they’re all cooking. We’re already seeing after just a couple of minutes that the burger patties are half done. So it’s all happening pretty quick here.

Ginger Gorman (00:15):

Corey and his partner are about to open a vegan restaurant, so when I knew I’d be trying some plant-based meats, I thought he’d be a safe guide. Let’s have a go, shall we, at some of these?

Corey (00:28):

Yeah. What do you want to try first?

Ginger Gorman (00:31):

I’m going to dive right into the meatiest looking thing on this plate, which is actually a burger that did look like it was bleeding when we took it out of the packet.

Corey (00:44):

All right.

Ginger Gorman (00:47):

It’s yum. Very salty though, isn’t it? I’m just going to take a sip of water.

Corey (00:52):

For me, I like the kind of smokey flavor it has and the texture, but smells a bit meaty to me.

Ginger Gorman (01:02):

That’s exactly what it’s meant to do. We’re eating the Impossible Burger. A plant-based patty designed to look, feel, and taste like a hamburger right down to the fake blood. And when I say designed, I don’t just mean a special recipe. This is genetically modified soy byproduct cooked up in a Silicon Valley science lab. Why would someone who very intentionally avoids eating meat want to pretend they’re eating meat?

Corey (01:33):

Health-wise, we always aspire to be whole food plant-based vegans, but by buying some of these products, you signal to companies with your dollar that it’s good to make these kind of products to help move the needle on more ethical and healthy eating. It’s also fun just to try it. I think some people transitioning from a meat-eating diet to a vegan diet miss the taste and textures of meat.

Ginger Gorman (01:56):

I’ve got to say, it’s been hard for me to wrap my head around Corey’s positivity. Vegans used to be pretty rare, and the stereotype was either diehard animal rights activist or wellness warrior. But these days about 2% of people are vegans and a lot of them don’t mind eating genetically modified soil molecules if it’ll lower their carbon footprint. But when it comes to lab grown food, where do you draw the line?

Christine Parker (02:27):

What do people feel is food or to use a technical term, the ontology of food? So, what counts as food?

Ginger Gorman (02:35):

Professor Christine Parker from Melbourne University’s Law School is interested in ethics, food regulations and corporate responsibility.

Christine Parker (02:45):

Do we as a community want to be in a situation where a good part of the food that we eat and which is easily available to us in supermarkets and restaurants is processed food? Is food that’s marketed as an imitation of a traditional animal source food? Is that something that people think is good food, a good food system, or would we prefer to have traditional vegetarian food and/or traditional animal-sourced food?

Ginger Gorman (03:25):

While scientists are making fake meat in Silicon Valley labs, she’s trying to figure out if these meat analogues pass Australia’s food standards, which they do by the way. But that might say more about our food regulations than it does about the edibility of the bleeding vegan patty. This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country. In the podcast today, who is driving the demand for faux meat and are Australia’s food regulations ready for high-tech hamburgers?

Before we delve into food regulations, let me satisfy your curiosity. How do they make the burger bleed?

Christine Parker (04:26):

They were experimenting with all sorts of methods for trying to make these products, and they invented this new ingredient called soy leghemoglobin, which is the bit that they say is like the blood in meat. It actually is derived from the roots of a soy plant and it has heme iron in it, which is the iron that is more easy for the body to absorb, but it’s not something people have traditionally eaten. People don’t eat the nodules of soy plants. So, they came up with a way to produce this particular molecule or whatever it is through genetic modification. They put it in the burger and it gives the burger the appearance that it’s bleeding. They say it also gives the taste of blood and it certainly does put that iron that’s in that ingredient into the burger.

Ginger Gorman (05:25):

A growing number of retailers are carrying these meat analogue products in Australia and not just in specialty stores.

Christine Parker (05:33):

It’s much more attractive to have a value-added product that has a bigger profit margin on it. And also, these products can be controlled in the supply chain better. I mean, they need refrigeration of course, but if you’ve got fresh produce, then you’ve got to worry about keeping it fresh essentially. So, vegetables and so on wilt and go bad pretty quickly. You also don’t make as much money out of fresh fruit and vegetables, and you certainly don’t make much money out of dried lentils and beans or even canned lentils and beans. So, it’s much more attractive to have a value-added product. They last a really long time, they’re a processed food, and you also don’t have to worry about educating your consumer about how to cook them and what recipes and so on to use. You just say, “Hey, put this in the same recipe as you would’ve used. It’s an easy substitution.”

Ginger Gorman (06:36):

I know parents who worry about their vegan children’s iron intake, and I also know plenty of blokes who want to be vegan but also want the protein that they used to get from meat. Whether or not these are real problems, meat analogues offer a solution.

Christine Parker (06:52):

These producers of these products are really selling us a story about the nutritional value of the products. There’s a whole lot of public discourse around the importance of protein in the diet. There was that whole sexist sort of idea around being a vegetarian or a vegan. That’s for wimps, that’s for girls. A real man shouldn’t be vegetarian or vegan. So, some of these products have been really marketed with male buff athletes. It really sort of has held on tight to this idea that you really need lots of protein in your diet and if you switch to a traditional vegetarian diet, you wouldn’t get enough protein and it’s got this fantastic source of iron as well.

Ginger Gorman (07:50):

If this were a different podcast, I might talk to a nutritionist about whether or not those claims hold muster. Christine has her own concerns.

Christine Parker (08:00):

They’re a new category of food, these processed meat analogues. Typically, these products use a lot of processing techniques. It’s not just that one soy leghemoglobin in a sort of patty made of lentils or something. We’re talking about everything about these products has been created through industrial processing techniques. And of course, there’s a huge debate about whether these are healthy or not, and there’s also just a lot of discomfort about the sort of social and identity implications of moving from whole foods and traditional meals to these sort of foods.

Ginger Gorman (08:46):

One of the articles I read about this, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. It was saying these meat analogues are more healthy than actual meat, but then they don’t have enough nutrients and they have too much sugar. And I thought, “How the hell are we meant to make a choice when we go into the supermarket?”

Christine Parker (09:06):

Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And what happens with these products is the same as what happens with a lot of other processed or packaged food products. So, think about breakfast cereals or flavoured yoghurts or two-minute noodles, whatever you want. So, a lot of these packaged and processed foods, they will highlight on their packaging one or two things about them that are really good. So, they might say “high in fibre” or “high in vitamin C” or “low in sugar”, but they won’t point out all the things that are bad. So, it might be low in sugar, but high in fat and salt.


Or it might be fortified with vitamin C, but it doesn’t tell you that a better source of vitamin C would be to eat an orange or five strawberries or something like that. So obviously these products are designed to be sold. They’re often allowed to be marketed with these sort of single headlines, these nutritional content claims that kind of create a health halo around them, but they’re not really telling us the full story about how healthy they are or are not, and how that would compare not just with other packaged foods, but with whole foods, whole fruit and veg.

Ginger Gorman (10:38):

So, you are looking at the packet of that burger, the one that bleeds now.

Corey (10:45):

So, it’s quite high in protein, one patty is almost 19 grams, lower in fat, so it’s 13 grams, but higher in saturated fat, six grams per patty, pretty good on fibre. And actually, lower on salt than you would expect from the taste, only 18% of your daily recommended intake, but maybe that’s a lot for one patty.

Ginger Gorman (11:08):

As more people go vegan to reduce their personal carbon footprint, there is a growing demand for food packaging to include information about its environmental impact as well as ingredients and nutrition.

Corey (11:21):

This packet actually does have environmental information on it, which I like. It says 69% less water than a beef patty from a cow produced in Australia. 88% less greenhouse gas emissions and 95% less land, which is all good things to hear on your food if you’re looking to reduce your environmental impact. You kind of need to have your finger on the pulse and do your own research for a lot of things, or in order to understand a business’s environmental or ethical footprint. A lot of that falls to the consumer to do.

Ginger Gorman (11:52):

Which brings me to the regulators. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is responsible for our food standards code, the legislation that says what can and can’t be sold as food.

Christine Parker (12:05):

What they focus on is just whether there is any single ingredient in the food that is novel enough to pose a safety risk to people who eat it.

Ginger Gorman (12:20):

Professor Christine Parker and her colleague, Dr. Hope Johnson, have published a paper on the gaps in the regulator’s scope and what that means for people who buy faux meat.

Christine Parker (12:31):

FSANZ are not saying, “Oh, look, there’s this whole new category of imitations of meat, and we should think about what that means.” They’re not assessing all the claims that these products make, that they’re environmentally more friendly than meat or that they’re healthier than meat, or that they’re more ethical than meat. Really all they’re interested in is, is there an ingredient in that product that might cause an acute safety risk to people who eat it? Now, that’s very important obviously, it’s really important to know whether there’s something toxic in your food.


Or whether there’s something that some people would have an allergic reaction to that needs to be labelled or marked in some way. Certainly that’s important, but I think that what people expect when they see our food system changing so much and these whole new categories of food coming in, I think people expect that somebody’s thinking about, “Well, what does this mean for the diet? What does this mean for the food supply? Are the claims that are being made about broader social, environmental and ethical issues? Are they fair? Is there some grounds for them?” And those things are not part of our regulatory system.

Ginger Gorman (13:59):

It strikes me as extraordinarily narrow.

Christine Parker (14:03):

Yeah, so we argue it’s an excessively narrow focus on safety, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. One of FSANZ’s legislative objectives is to look at public health. So, we might expect that they might look a bit more broadly at the health implications of new products, but they don’t do that essentially. They focus in on safety as a public health issue. They really only look at broader public health issues in a fairly narrow way in the way that health claims on the food package are regulated. FSANZ does have some rules about what claims can be made about the nutrients and the healthiness of food, but that’s about as far as their public health considerations go. They do not have any role in looking at environmental sustainability of food nor other ethical issues like animal welfare or supply chains and how fairly it treats farmers or workers. Or whether it helps promote a sustainable Australian food production system.

Ginger Gorman (15:26):

And perhaps that shouldn’t be the role of the food regulator, but there is growing demand for ethically sourced climate friendly products. And surely as consumers, we deserve assurances beyond “This food won’t cause death.”

Christine Parker (15:42):

I think that the Impossible Burger application really shows that what FSANZ does and what the public expect FSANZ to do are two quite different things, because what we found is that there were a lot of submissions made when FSANZ put out their assessment of the soy leghemoglobin in the Impossible Burger. Many more people made submissions than usually make submissions to these dry food standards processes. But most of the concerns that people raised were not able to be dealt with by the FSANZ process.

Ginger Gorman (16:24):

I am one of those consumers who tries to make sustainable choices, but when I’m doing a big grocery shop for my family and I’m faced with shelves of products that promise a low carbon footprint, I just want to trust that there’s an agency out there researching those claims on my behalf so that I can hurry up and get home to feed my kids.

Christine Parker (16:45):

A lot of people have argued that in this time in the life of Australia and the world, an agency like FSANZ should have a legislative remit to look at sustainability. And that is starting to happen for some of the other food agencies, particularly the UK one. The legislation does not permit them to look at environmental issues and ethical issues. So that is something that needs to be addressed by policy makers. But I think for FSANZ should have a role in looking at least at environmental sustainability issues. If we think that animal-sourced food is a problem because of the way animals are farmed, and there’s a lot of evidence that contemporary factory farming or intense industrial animal agriculture causes a lot of problems, then shouldn’t we be thinking about how we should better regulate that industry rather than thinking that we can replace it with processed food made by Silicon Valley companies in the US.

Ginger Gorman (17:59):

While Food Standards Australia, New Zealand can’t assess ethics or environmental sustainability when a new food comes on the market, safety isn’t the only criterion.

Christine Parker (18:10):

FSANZ is actually directed to consider essentially Australia’s food economy. So, it’s requested to promote food innovation and fair trading in food. So basically, this is an example of where the regulatory system is essentially trying to promote the idea that the market will produce good food or good products, and there’s a fairly narrow exception. So, if there’s a direct acute threat to safety, then obviously we need to deal with that. But otherwise, the bias of the system is towards letting businesses innovate and trade and make sure consumers know roughly what they’re buying.


But basically, it’s up to the market to decide and consumers have to somehow figure it out for themselves. There’s a bit of an irony here though, because as Hope Johnson and I show in our paper, the actual Impossible Burger is coming from a California-based company, they’re going to own the intellectual property. At the moment, as I understand it, they’re producing the actual product over there and exporting it to Australia. They may end up producing it in Australia if the market’s large enough, but they’ll be making the profit from the intellectual property. So, it’s not doing that much for the Australian economy.

Ginger Gorman (19:49):

And I’d say there’s limited evidence that when you leave market forces to bear, and that’s the only factor that we get the best outcomes for everyone in the community.

Christine Parker (20:00):

Yeah, well, I tend to think that you need a bit more governance and regulation than just sort of the worrying about safety in that narrow sense. The Australian government, one of the things it has done is it has said, “Look, we think we should be trying to get Australian businesses to start producing these plant-based meats as well.” So, there is, in fairness to the Australian government, they are at least trying to get these businesses that are producing these plant-based meats to be using Australian inputs, so Australian grains and legumes and so on. But basically that’s about trying to create a market for a new product, but it’s not asking the questions about, “Well, is this new product actually good?”

Ginger Gorman (20:51):

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. This podcast is produced on Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Yuggerah and Turrbal land, and we pay our respects to Elders past and present. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gageldonk, aka Baldy, and our executive producers are Bonnie Johnson and Clare McHugh. It is an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Next time on Seriously Social, from high density apartments to five-bedroom homes on a quarter of an acre. What’s the ideal when it comes to housing, and who is calling the shots on new developments? See you then.

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