A couple years ago, I attended the Natural Food Expo West for the first time. The section of the main exhibit hall that I first wandered into was row after row of nutraceutical suppliers. These suppliers, including many from China, provided many of the vitamins, minerals, herbs used to supplement and fortify many of the “natural” and “healthy” foods and drinks I’d later see a plethora of elsewhere at this expo. What was less ubiquitous was real whole food, that is food that was minimally processed, well grown or raised and that didn’t need to be fortified or supplemented to be nutrient dense.
So this past April, I returned to Anaheim once again to attend the Natural Food Expo West held at the convention center. This year the event was larger than ever, and I only had portions of two days so couldn’t cover the entire hall. Maybe I just missed it, but all the nutraceutical suppliers seemed to be organized more around the periphery rather than taking so much area on the floor this time. Though there still was plenty of “natural” and ‘healthy” junk food fortified with vitamins, minerals, herbs and- the new rage- probiotics. However, much to my surprise, there was a larger presence of real food with more fermented foods, minimally processed seaweed items, and vinegar as well as plenty of bone broth, jerkies and other grass finished meats. Popular ketogenic and paleo dietary patterns obviously required more consumer products.
The new buzz word on the floor was “regenerative.” Regenerative though is a little bit more than a marketing term or just another way to differentiate products from other products. Regenerative means making a conscientious effort to source ingredients grown or raised on farms or ranches in ways that regenerate land and soil health. As we argue over dietary patterns in our culture, we seem to forget that as our population grows, our soil erodes and turns to dirt, so the amount of arable land we have to grow crops continues to shrink. Soil is being lost ten to forty times faster than it is being replaced (Lang 2006). One of main drivers of top soil erosion is the plow (Montgomery 2007) as well as poor livestock management. No-till practices with chemical inputs aren’t much better. The inputs also adversely impact soil microbiology. Soil is full of biology that, as noted in my last entry, It’s the Soil Biology Stupid, drives carbon sequestration, water retention, nutrient cycling, and fertility among many other things.
Making a completely different appeal to environmentalism, health and ethics at the Expo were “plant based” products for junk food vegans and flexitarians. Though most of these products, and there were plenty, for this sector are hyper processed foods full of hyper processed ingredients like isolated proteins and industrial vegetable oils. Transparency of sourcing or methods of plant production really aren’t part of the zeitgeist. So there’s not the slightest concern for soil health or ecosystem restoration. Heck, most of the hyper-processed ingredients in these hyper-processed foods come from industrially farmed mono-cultures.
There also seems to be little awareness of how the plant ingredients are modified. I asked a number of the sales people if they knew how their pea proteins were extracted or textured wheat was derived. None of the sales people had a clue. I also asked some of the plant based protein drink mix companies whether they knew what the amino acid composition profiles were, and the sales people were equally befuddled. A few mentioned they purchased the pea protein isolates from suppliers. So I asked some of the suppliers on the exhibition hall floor my questions as well, but the sales people didn’t know and none of their more scientific people were available.
The problem with getting protein straight from plants is that to get RDA levels of many of the different essential amino acids, you have to eat a lot of plants especially of green leafy vegetables or broccoli Here’s a chart comparing some whole food plant sources of protein to whole food animal sources of protein listing the essential amino acids for an 100 gram serving.
Animals basically bio-concentrate essential amino acids so you can get these essential amino acids in smaller amounts of food. Well, the work around for plant based substitutions and protein powders is to isolate plant proteins so the source is more concentrated. To isolate the plant protein, fats, phytates, oligiosacharides, fiber all have to be removed from the peas, wheat, soy beans, etc. There are a number of ways to remove all of these other components. Defatting may include hexane or other solvents to obtain the deffated meal which is then dehydrated to create defatted flour. Various processes ( eg. Alkali extraction–isoelectric precipitation, Salt extraction-dialysis, Micellar precipitation) have been developed to further extract/isolate the protein from the flour. These processes may involve additional chemical solutions (e.g. sodium hydroxide also known as caustic lye), centrifuging, freeze drying and or ultra filtration. These different processes create isolated proteins that vary in protein content as well as different properties that make them more or less useful for various food products (Stone et al 2015).
Is this healthy? It certainly isn’t the same as going out to the garden and picking some fresh peas. Other ingredients are equally dubious. Let’s take a look, for example, at the hyper processed Beyond Meat (click hyperlink to see patent application) Burger’s hyper processed ingredients:
Pea protein isolate, expeller pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-gmo modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.
Pea protein as already discussed is the primary ingredient The second most prevalent ingredient is “expeller pressed” canola oil. Canola seeds can be pressed several ways. They can be cold pressed or expeller pressed. The seed oil can also be extracted with hexane. Hexane extracts the most oil. Hexane has some issues (short term exposure can cause dizziness and nausea while chronic exposure can damage one’s nervous system) , and hexane extraction is a longer process as shown in this video “How is it made- Canola Oil.” Expeller pressing with heat extracts more oil than the cold pressed method done at a lower temperature. Heat is a bit problematic. Seed oils like canola, soy bean, corn and sunflower oil are all polyunsaturated fats. This means that there are multiple single bonds between the carbon atoms bonded together to form the fatty acid. With saturated fats, the carbon atoms are connected by double bonds. Saturated fats are thus more stable than polyunsaturated fats since double bonds are stronger than single bonds. When polyunsaturated fats are heated during the extraction of the oil or during cooking the single bonds break and the oils form plant sterol oxidation product [POPS]. These POPS effect membrane functioning and cause inflammation, thus they have been connected to arteriosclerosis (Vanmierlo et al, 2012). The ninth listed ingredient, sunflower oil, has similar issues. From a health perspective, oxidized extracted oil, that’s also heated to cook really isn’t a better alternative to naturally occurring saturated fats that are more stable when exposed to heat.
Or, in other words, using heat extracted expeller pressed canola in a product that’s heated in a pan isn’t exactly an healthier alternative to the real product which, in this case, is beef. Nina Teicholz, author of The Big fat Surprise, provides an interesting overview of the science that’s the basis for many of the health concern issues related to meat in this video, Red Meat and Health.
The reality is that plant based products like Beyond Meat are really chemistry sets. Food science at its most devious purporting to be “healthy.” Maltodextrin, derived from wheat or corn starch is another winner. This thickener which is a white powder formed via partial hydrolysis, a process using water and acid, to break down the starches. Maltodextrin can also spike blood sugar. Then there are the “natural flavors.” What could possibly be wrong with “natural flavors.” Plenty, of course as this article, What Are Natural Flavors, Really, notes:
“…Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. And all of the extra ingredients in flavors often aren’t as innocent as you’d hope they would be. The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives — and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume [of the flavoring]. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients…”
Okay so maybe this hyper processed lab concoction isn’t really healthier for you, but certainly it is better for the environment and kills less animals, right? Not necessarily, since this all depends on how and where the peas, wheat, soy and other ingredients are grown. Though the problem with all of these ingredients is that there’s no transparency. The people selling these products at their respective booths had no idea as to the sourcing of any of the crops that became the hyper processed ingredients blended together in these hyper processed foods. So let’s take a look at large scale pea production in this video Frozen peas: from farm to fork and this video Seeding Peas and this video Harvesting Peas
Now let’s compare these peas farms with cattle ranches that utilize holistic management including regenerative grazing ruminants like in this video Amazing Grasslands and this video Leopold Conservation Award ~ Blue Bell Ranch.
Looking at these first three farming videos, the large scale production, planting and harvesting of peas that’s required for large scale food production includes massive fossil fuel guzzling and CO2 belching equipment on land that has been cleared except for the single pea crop that’s growing. This land was once grassland with a diversity of plants, insects, and animals like vols, mice, nesting birds, foxes, badgers, snakes, moles, deer, etc. This entire ecosystem has been destroyed. This is ecocide. The monocrop of peas only blooms at the same time for short period of the growing season, so all the wild native pollinators have nothing to eat the rest of the year. The pea plants also have to be protected from all insects and other animals that want to eat them. So insecticides, rodenticides, avicides, fungicides are used to keep insects and animals out of the soils and the fields. Any insects and animals that survive through this land conversion, cultivation, and protection are ran over by the harvesting equipment. Then crops are further protected with chemicals when they are stored.
Basically these huge expanses of land-that once were habitat for a wide variety of microbes, plants and animals are now dead zones that only support the monocrops being harvested. There’s no dual use for this land. Since a lot of the soil biology has been destroyed due to tillage, pesticides or bare fallows, other chemicals are required for fertility. Some crops like wheat also get more synthetic nitrogen to increase their protein content (Zhang et al. 2017) . All of these other inputs also undermine the soil biology. Plus a lot of the nitrogen and phosphorus ends up leaching into waterways, or being released as nitrous oxide, a long lasting and very potent greenhouse gas.
Thus growing those peas for the pea protein isolate isn’t exactly environmentally friendly plus a lot of soil microbes, insects and animals die. Though dead soil microbes may seem trivial in comparison to a head of cattle or a lamb, those soil microbes are the foundation for large parts of the food web. Soil bacteria is consumed by things like nematodes, which in turn are consumed by small insects that are consumed by larger insects then birds and small mammals. Everything is interconnected with one another. Currently due to many agricultural practices both insect (Vogel 2017) and bird (McHugh et al. 2017). populations are crashing. The same problems are closely associated with farming many of the other ingredients in the Beyond Meat hyper processed burger. Canola, sunflowers and corn or wheat crops are all industrially farmed, and even if organically sourced still involve soil ecosystem disruption due to tillage, organic pesticide use, and bare fallows. Again there’s zero concern for soil health or soil microbiology with these plants based products. There’s a total lack of awareness of these issues by both the manufacturers and consumers of these mock meats.
Now let’s discuss the well managed regenerative grazing in the second two videos. There is continuous diverse ground cover in intact grassland ecosystems that have either been restored and or maintained. There’s no need to convert and cultivate the land. What’s harvested are the culled heifers and the steers. So yes, some of the cattle end up at the slaughter house but none of the field animals, insects or microbes are displaced or die. So like most things in life, we have to make trade offs, and balance what’s good to minimize what’s bad. The regenerative sacrificed beef allows for an abundance of other life.
With such regenerative management, the land the cattle graze is divided into a number of smaller paddocks or cells. The cattle are moved from cell to cell. So the cattle is only on a small portion of the land at any one time. Management is adaptive to different conditions and circumstances that may arise; for example, to avoid nesting birds that may be using an area of the grasslands. Depending on how quickly the forages grow back, cattle may only graze the same piece of land only once or twice a year. So the vast majority of the land is shared with other wild life, especially insects and birds. Well managed cattle preserve open space. With diverse plants, including forbs, there is also pollen for pollinators all season long. Plus there are no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers used. So, soil health is maintained, restored and or enhanced. Again, to reiterate, healthy soil full of microbial life means more soil carbon and more water retention and thus more fertility and drought resistance. So healthy soil is pretty much the key to everything including climate change mitigation, and reversing desertification.
Now there are certainly better ways to farm as well as worse ways to ranch, but the larger point is that what’s healthy, what does the least harm, and what’s good or bad for the environment isn’t simply a dialectic of plants being “good” and meat being “bad.” Many ways of farming peas, wheat, corn, rice and even organic vegetables can be incredibly detrimental especially to wild life and soil health. Whereas well managed livestock can be environmentally beneficial and enhance biodiversity both above and below ground. Why? Again well managed livestock can build soil and enhance soil biology. So rather than focus on what should or shouldn’t be on one’s plate based on what is perceived, and more often mis-perceived, to be good or bad food, the focus should instead be on what are the best ways to raise, and grow food that restores, enhances and or preserves ecosystem function by restoring, enhancing and or preserving soil health. Healthy regenerated soil is the key to a sustainable food system able to feed an ever growing population. Using industrial crops differently is definitely not a viable or sustainable solution whatever your dietary pattern.
Montgomery, D.R. 2007. Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability
Garcia-Ruiz, J.M. et al. 2015. A meta-analysis of soil erosion rates across the world
Stone, A. et al. 2015. Functional attributes of pea protein isolates prepared using different extraction methods and cultivars
Vanmierlo, T. et al. 2012. Plant sterol oxidation products e Analogs to cholesterol oxidation products from plant origin?
Zhang, P et al. 2017. Effect of irrigation and nitrogen application on grain amino acid composition and protein quality in winter wheat