Dan Murphy: Tarnishing the ‘Health Halo’

Plant-based burgers may not be as healthy as advertised. ( FJ )

The entrepreneurs behind the current wave of alt-meat products are not only skilled in formulation science, they’re proving to be adept at telling consumers what they want to hear.

Lately, I’m feeling the effects of faux food fatigue.

It seems that every other column I compose ends up taking aim at various implausible or outrageous claims made by the alt-meat manufacturers and their media shills. But that’s because the media are constantly salivating over the latest launch of some new plant-based concoction. 

Typically, those stories feature some investment analyst earning lucrative commissions from pretending to predict stock prices crowing about the fantastic profits projected for an alt-meat introduction and/or a vegan activist touting our glorious future when livestock disappear from the Earth and we all find happiness subsisting on factory-fresh formulations of plant protein ingredients.

I can’t let any of that go unchallenged.

Worst of all is the notion that not only will these manufactured foods solve the climate crisis — without any economic disruption to animal agriculture worldwide, supposedly — but the world’s population will become oh-so much healthier as a result of living on a diet of factory foods.

That (alleged) positive effect from switching from natural meat, poultry and dairy to faux food analogs has been labeled the “health halo,” meaning that shelling out for alt-meat products will not only improve an individual’s health status but will result in all sorts of ancillary benefits to one’s well-being.

To summarize: Eating meat from an animal, as humans have done for about 300,000 years without health consequences is horrific and will ultimately destroy people’s health. However, eating manufactured products concocted in a test tube and utilizing artificial ingredients that have never existed in Nature is just super fantastic and should be embraced without question.

Sorry … no sale.

The promise of placebos

Finally, a few voices are stating the obvious: We shouldn’t be rushing to canonize the health status of alt-meat products — not until their supposed miraculous health benefits are documented.

Simply stated, the alt-meat category doesn’t deserve a health halo.

For example: A University of Washington nutritionist took aim at such claims, albeit with a soft-as-silk comment that wildly understated the dietary reality of faux foods.

They certainly provide "a wonderful placebo effect as a healthy alternative to beef,” Judy Simon, UW Medicine dietician, told Seattle news station KIRO-7, noting, however, that they’re “not nearly as healthy as advertised; these non-meat burgers are really fairly processed and they’re quite expensive.”

I have to say that “placebo effect” is quite insightful as a description of the effect proponents claim they experience when consuming these non-meat analogs. As numerous research experiments have confirmed, if people are told by someone in authority that they will experience specific sensory effects from consuming certain foods — consider how a celebrity chef describes a culinary creation to a group of fawning diners — or that they will feel specific symptom relief from swallowing what is described as a powerful prescription medicine, they respond accordingly.

Even the wave of TV ads for Impossible Burger, as an example, depict people universally claiming that they are totally fooled by the taste, flavor and mouthfeel of the shamburger they’re wolfing down on camera.

The only thing missing is a takeoff on the tagline, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Beef.”

Plus, let’s not forget that the heme molecule, which is what alt-meat manufacturers love to claim is the reason their products fool consumers into believing they’re eating real beef is made from genetically engineered yeast.

And here I thought GMOs were downright deadly, to the point that food products made from ingredients derived from crops grown from genetically engineered seeds need to display big, bold labeling on the package warning us of the danger lurking inside.

Guess it doesn’t matter if the GMO ingredients are used in manufacturing a vegetarian product.

Nutritionist Simon nicely paraphrased the sentiments of alt-meat proponents as follows: “Wow, this is going to change my life.”

Which is exactly what the purveyors of placebos tell their subjects they’re going to experience.

And unfortunately, much of the time, it works.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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