“Impossible” Food

Within the last few months advertising for “impossible food” has ramped up. Actually, Impossible Foods Inc. is a California company – where else – which is focusing on producing veggie burgers. Some companies have been around for years and others are now jumping into the market. Why?

Beef, along with other animal sources of meat constitute an excellent source of protein. Americans eat an average of about 250 pounds of animal protein, including fish and shellfish, annually. There are alternative sources of protein such as a diet that balances beans and grains, but strict vegetarian diets must have an additional source for Vitamin B12.

The easy and tasty nutrition of meat, especially beef, does come at a cost. Much of the arable land in the United States is dedicated to the production of feed for the animals we eat and animals are not very efficient in turning the calories they eat into the protein we desire.

Energy inputs to raise animals come in the form of the energy needed to produce crops for animal food, mainly for fuel and fertilizer. Beef, the one we eat the most of is at the head of the inefficiency lists. It takes 33 units of energy to produce one unit of beef. Pork is better at 11 units in per unit out. Chicken is even better at 5 in to 1 out.

So where is all that wasted energy going? It is complex but boils down to two main factors, digestive inefficiency and basal metabolism, essentially heat production. The consequences of this waste is significant. As mentioned, land use is dominated production of animal feed. The CO2 released from fossil fuel use contributes to global warming. Much of the Methane released which also contributes to global warming comes from agriculture.

Animal wastes, feces and urine, can be a significant issue as we have recently seen in the fight over the hog factory operation in Mt Judea. A combination of public and private money, amounting to millions of dollars will be spent to close the farm and prevent further damage to the Buffalo National River.

Phosphorous and Nitrogen applied to crops as fertilizer runs off and ends up in the ocean. There is currently a several thousand square mile area at the mouth of the Mississippi River that is called a dead zone. Nutrient overload here ironically prevents virtually anything from growing.

All the issues of land use, global warming, and nutrient pollution would greatly benefit from the adoption of a vegetarian diet. Land use could shrink by a factor of ten if we ate beans and grains rather than feeding them to livestock. Similarly, agriculturally driven production of green house gasses and nutrient pollution would be reduced.

Now back to the impossible foods. Vegetable-based burgers and such have been around for sale at the grocer’s for years and in few restaurants but seldom before in fast food chains. Now you can get an impossible whopper. The faux meat patty is made from soy protein with numerous amendments to simulate a real burger.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

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