Fake Meat, Fake Promises

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

In the same vein that it is mildly amusing to see leftists wring their hands over all the birds their windmills kill, I recommend the following before reading through an article at the New Republic titled, "The Promise and Problem of Fake Meat." Make some popcorn.

I like real butter with mine.

As my regulars know, I oppose the Green New Deal and I have a very low regard for practically all nutritional advice I hear, particularly from the press and the government. I also happen to like meat, and feel approximately ... zero ... moral qualms of any kind about eating it. In fact, I so strongly suspect that meat is an important enough component of my diet that I have no interest in substituting something created in a lab from vegetable matter. It's not that I don't think a lab couldn't do this at all: It's that I don't think a lab can do this today,  given the current state of our knowledge about nutrition.

With all that out of the way, I present what I regard as one of the few somewhat compelling paragraphs from the piece:

I'll have the real thing, thanks. (Image by Markus Spiske, via Unsplash, license.)
Traditional meat products usually have one ingredient. These newfangled meatish products are more complicated. The Impossible Burger has 21 ingredients, and the Beyond Burger has 22. Impossible's main contents are soy protein isolate, sunflower oil, and coconut oil; Beyond's are pea protein isolate, coconut oil, and canola oil. The oil in each product is supposed to mimic beef's fat content; the soy and pea proteins mimic the protein content. Both plant-based burgers contain water, salt, and the binding agent methylcellulose. Both are gluten-free.
Oh. I forgot. I tend to break out if I have too much vegetable oil other than olive oil. And I'm not an anti-GMO Luddite. But while food processing isn't bad in and of itself, I am wary of replacing a significant amount of meat with plant material engineered to resemble meat. So, yeah. They're not exactly 3-D printing a perfect replica of actual meat here.

Perhaps even more compelling is what the article takes for granted. Consider, selfishly please, the two main reasons the piece finds fake meat "promising:" (1) Its manufacture supposedly results in the production of less greenhouse gas than actual meat; and (2) It might reduce the overall incidence of certain diseases that have been attributed to meat consumption among the general population. These are both debatable assertions of debatable utility. (The article does suggest the rather insulting "utility" of the product helping the guilt-ridden fool themselves. No thanks.)

Note further that neither argument is pitched in a way to appeal to an individualist, and that should raise one's suspicions to say the very least. The second superficially looks like a pitch to the health-conscious, but is arguably insulting: Diet and exercise regimens always require some degree of self-experimentation because of individual variability, and the government's pronouncements on such matters have a poor track record even as general advice on top of that. And I don't recall reading anything about price, (Nor do the terms cost or price appear anywhere in the story.) Whatever one thinks of global warming or government nutrition advice, the question Why should I want fake meat at all? is never really addressed.

Perhaps the take-home is this: When something is touted as a promise in altruistic or collectivist terms, it should be regarded as a threat until proven otherwise.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

On the flip side, you have actual lab-grown meat:


While I have no moral qualms about killing animals for food (I studied ecology, and understand the necessary, even critical role predators play in maintaining the health of prey species), I would very much like to try lab-grown meat. I'm not so interested in beef, chicken, or other such organisms; what I find exciting is the possibility of growing mammoth meat, or giant sloth meat, or dodo meat: those organisms which humans evolved eating, but which are sadly extinct. It is entirely possible to grow mammoth muscle for the purpose of human consumption, with no moral qualms (since the DNA isn't destroyed, there's not even a twinge of guilt about destroying an irreplaceable fossil). It's also an interesting scientific question: Humans evolved to hunt and eat Pleistocene megafauna, so understanding how these critters taste will give us insight into the evolution of dietary preferences.

I'm still not sure what I think of cloned human meat, a topic that has often come up in conversations I've had on this topic. On the one hand, it's not an actual human so there are really no moral qualms. It's my DNA, and if I want to sell it for consumption I should be allowed to do so. On the other, cannibalism of any kind makes me uneasy. (There are examples of perfectly moral cannibalism; anthropologists are very strange, and very curious people.)

Gus Van Horn said...


I'd be curious about and willing to try lab-grown meat.

Regarding cloned human flesh, I'd be very hesitant about it for at least two reasons: (1) Prions, of which I believe those from one's own species are more likely to cause disease. (Possibly not a problem in lab-grown muscle: I don't really know off the top of my head.), and (2) Disease risk, since most or all bacteria or viruses that could sicken a human being could live in such meat. (Aside from the potentially murderous source of human flesh, I suspect that this might be behind religious taboos against cannibalism, to the extent that they arise from the experience of a social group.)

I have some other interesting initial thoughts on why, ethically and politically, using human meat for food would be very bad, but I don't want to stretch my neck out on them now, while I hurriedly answer a blog comment over lunch!


Todd Walton said...

I've tried the "Impossible Burger" and also the "Beyond Burger". Both are not bad. The first is a little better. I think it's amazing that someone had the ingenuity and drive to develop these products.

It seems apparent that we can't give actual animal meat to everyone in the world who wants it, so this might become a suitable substitute one day. Time will tell, I suppose.

Dinwar said...

I doubt disease would be an issue. Prions and other disease-causing agents are infections, and any decently maintained lab would be able to minimize them. I'd go so far as at say that you'd be LESS likely to get an infection from lab-grown meat (of any species), because the meat never risked exposure to the various infectious agents while it was alive.

I'm also very hesitant to assign reasons for taboos. The risk is that we focus on those areas where post-hoc justifications work, while ignoring the rest. I've heard similar arguments advanced about why pork is considered unclean in Jewish and Muslim communities--it CAN make you sick, given the way pigs are usually raised. Unfortunately, those advancing this argument ignore pretty much the rest of the dietary requirements, which are generally complete nonsense. Personally, I think most dietary restrictions that turn out to be useful are a matter of pure random chance.

Agreed that using humans for food--even lab-grown human muscle--raises a host of issues that we would have to deal with. The two examples of cannibalism I consider moral amount to anthropologists engaging in scientific research: in both cases an anthropologist that studied cultures that engage in cannibalism donated a part of their body for the purpose of being eaten in the interest of understanding these cultures. But given the risks associated with eating humans, I think there's ample reason for any just society to be very, VERY cautious about handling such an event.

Gus Van Horn said...


I look at fake meat (as opposed to lab-grown) in a similar light as I do Tesla or the alcohol delivery app Drizly: These are impressive achievements on some level, but ultimately, wasted effort. If costs go down, sure, fake meat could supplement or replace meat for people who are used to having it and can't afford it. But the main impetus behind it is, I think, environmentalism, rather than a genuine concern for helping humans eat well and cheaply.


Prions aren't always infectious. Sometimes, Prion protein can misfold spontaneously and sometimes there are mutations that make it quite likely for such misfolding to occur. Sure, a lab could find a way to prevent/screen for the presence of prions.

Also, your point on taboos is well appreciated.


Steve D. said...

'Prions aren't always infectious.'

There is evidence that prions evolved for beneficial purposes (and are actually part of our growth and development) but some have been co-opted to become infectious agents.

Regarding plant-based 'meat', it will eventually become much cheaper than real meat after the technology evolves, becomes more accessible, goes off patent etc.

Gus Van Horn said...


RE: Prions, is this the sort of thing you're speaking of? It has been a while since I've thought about prions. That's interesting.

Regarding plant-based meat, I agree that its price will go down. If (1) the folks behind it are better at what they're doing, nutritionally, than I think they are or (2) the similarity to real meat is less important than I think it could be, that would be a good thing. But the motivation behind the product bothers me a lot.