Red meat is getting a bad rap these days, even worse than the usual eat-more-grains-and-fish mantra from government do-gooders.
Correlations with increased cancer and heart disease are growing, and even longevity appears to be compromised by too much beef. Those of us with dangerously high iron levels are told to steer clear (no pun intended) of red meat.
Then there's gout and uric acid-based kidney stones. And in its dietary guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warns us to limit red meat consumption.
All this bad news is having an effect. More and more people are turning to poultry and fish or just foregoing animal protein altogether. Of my seven grandchildren, two are vegetarians and one is a vegan -- she avoids animal flesh and protein that comes from animals (eggs, milk, cheese). Cooking for them is a chore and a half.
The pogrom against meat has gone national. Some businesses, having introduced casual Fridays 15-20 years ago, are now offering meatless Tuesdays in the company cafeteria. Turkeyburgers and turkeydogs are staples on suburban grills. Being "health conscious" has come to mean shunning the cow (and sheep and pig).
But eating the cow is only part of the problem. Raising the cow is just as bad, say the environmentalists. The beast requires grazing land and water that could be put to better use. Vast parts of the Midwest are devoted to growing corn and grains to fatten cattle. Then there are the hormone shots the purists don't want carried over onto their dinner plates. And finally, good grief, the cow defecates, soiling farmland and fouling waterways.
But that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is methane -- a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming or whatever climate evil is fashionable these days. Methane comes from leaky gas wells. But more of it comes from cows! That's right. Livestock and their byproducts are responsible for 51% of methane emissions. And a good bit of that comes from cattle flatulence. A wit called it the "barnyard bugle." You can't make this stuff up!
A Naples Daily News letter-writer posited, "If just a simple majority in the Paris Agreement signatory nations removed animal products from their diets, we would be well on the way to reversing rising temperatures." Oceans would probably recede as well.
But, seriously, suppose cattle were no longer raised and the market for red meat dried up. What would take its place? Can plants or even bugs be disguised to look and taste like beef or pork?
The short answer is yes, and some of the food industries' highest rollers are betting heavily on it.
The Wall Street Journal just tallied the effort: PepsiCo is looking into mycoprotein from fermented fungus. Kellogg is investigating smoothies containing protein-rich leaves from the West African moringa tree. General Mills is researching kaniwa, a protein-rich seed from South America.
Aspire Food Group is taking it a step further. The Texas-based company is betting on insect farming, which, it says, requires far less land, water and fossil fuels than raising livestock. Crickets are the insect of choice. Aspire has used cricket powder in protein bars, cookies and dog food, and offers roasted crickets as a crunchy snack. BBQ sauce or sour cream is optional.
Food companies are also exploring combinations of plant proteins, drawing on lentils, mung beans, mustard seeds and lupin beans. Researchers at PepsiCo are looking into soy, mealworm powder and duckweed (we've lots of that in Florida). A recent innovation is a patented process for solubilizing oats in water for protein drinks.
Benefitting from this revolution are the flavorant companies, since the natural flavor of crickets and mealworms have to be covered up or, better, be made to taste like a Big Mac. Then there's texture to deal with, opening up whole new opportunities for bulking and crisping agents.
Lest this sound like a chemical takeover, keep in mind that ground beef is made up of chemicals -- scores of amino acid combinations plus fatty esters and an array of other unpronounceable goodies. It's a matter of substituting one batch of natural products for another. In meat substitutes, only the flavorants, or at least some of them, will be synthetic chemicals, and they will make up less than 0.1% of the meatless patty.
There are big changes coming to our grocery shelves. By 2021, meat substitutes are forecast to be a $1 billion business, with nothing but upside ahead. Think of the ingredient listing on the label: Powdered mealy worms, heat-rendered jackfruit, xanthan gum, polydextrose, stevia, sea salt.
Double cheeseburger anyone?