Plant-Based ‘Meats’: A Food Safety Risk?

While plant-based meats are increasingly popular, there are many unknowns about the safety of these products.
August 31, 2021

Countless brands and types of plant-derived imitation meats are on the market and are being consumed around the world every day.

A 2018 study found that more than half of Canadians — 53 percent — eat meat alternatives, with one in five claiming to eat them at least a few times per week. Since this study was published, Canadians’ interest in faux-meats has only grown.

Demand for eco-friendly products

Consumers are demanding meat alternatives, and the food industry is responding. Fast-food giants are offering plant-based burgers; supermarkets have entire meat-free sections containing products that resemble the real thing; restaurants are expanding their menus to add variety for vegetarian or vegan customers.

The rise in demand for meat alternatives has been mainly linked to issues around reducing cruelty to animals, lessening the impact on the environment (e.g. reducing the carbon footprint) and improving one’s overall health. People tend to crave the taste and texture of meat but want to avoid consuming animal products for ethical or health reasons.

The proliferation of faux-meats in the marketplace has raised many questions:

  • Are these products just a trend, or are they here to stay?
  • Are they actually better for the environment than real meats?
  • Are these products safe?

Ingredients in alternative-meat products

First, to determine whether a product is safe for consumption, we need to figure out what they’re made of. Usually, the core components of meat alternatives are soy protein, wheat protein or gluten. These form the basis, while other elements are added or altered to create the end product.

The ingredients chosen are used not only to deliver nutritional benefits, but to also simulate the flavours, colours and mouthfeel of meat. Wheat gluten, mung bean or rice proteins can lend products a chewy texture. Binding plant proteins can also create the effect of juiciness that people associate with eating meat. Plant-derived oils and fats (e.g. coconut, avocado, canola, sesame) are frequently used to mimic the marbling of animal fat. Binders made of plant starches from wheat, oat, or apple are used to connect the ingredients together in a convincing, meat-like way.

Unfamiliar ingredients

There can also be dozens of additives in each faux-meat offering, making ingredients lists lengthy. For example, Leghemoglobin, a protein expressed in soybean root nodules, is sometimes used to replicate the bloody look of meat. Pigments from beets, cabbage or berries can serve the same reddening purpose. Titanium dioxide is used to brighten and whiten the appearance of imitation chicken. Yeast extracts, sugars, and spices may be added to compensate for beany off-flavours — a common problem in plant-based foods. Vitamins and minerals are added to make up for nutritional deficiencies. Organic acids or phosphate compounds may be added to improve shelf life.

Consumers — and food businesses — are largely unfamiliar with these ingredients and the purposes they serve.

‘Meats’ created by extrusion process

They may be plant-based, but these foods are extremely processed, using extrusion, a high-temperature and high-pressure processing method. This process creates the product’s form and texture, while reducing the number of harmful microorganisms that could potentially contaminate the food.

High-temperature processing, while necessary to reduce the microbial load and increase safety and shelf-life, is known to produce carcinogens, but this has not been studied in plant-based meat alternatives.

New challenges for food safety

Novel foods present new challenges and potential concerns include:

  • Presence of physical hazards: Any highly processed food could potentially contain foreign matter (e.g., glass, metal)
  • Creation of new allergens: For example, pea proteins used in highly processed meat substitutes could trigger peanut allergies in some people
  • Introduction of contaminants: Repeated consumption of new proteins could be toxic over the long term (studies needed)

Possible hidden allergens

Possibly the most worrying challenge is unknown allergens present in imitation meats. Soybean and wheat are two of the most common allergens. Legumes like chickpeas and peas are also strongly associated with allergies.

Because meat alternatives use concentrated protein isolates from these allergens, when eating one of these products, the consumer could inadvertently consume a much higher dose of an allergen than they would eating a whole food.

Soy, a common allergen, is frequently used in alternative meat products. Food businesses and their staff need to be aware when products contain soy and make sure their customers are aware as well.

Pay attention to specified cooking temperatures

The risks of eating raw or undercooked meat are well documented. The same cannot be said for imitation meats, but they should still be cooked well (to the manufacturer’s specifications), because legumes, grains and vegetables — the elements used to create these products — can become contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, so cooking them thoroughly is important for safety.

Plant-based meats should not be treated as meat

Consumers and businesses should not attempt to replace meat with something that simply is not meat, or treat these products as an exact replacement. It should not be assumed that non-meats are necessarily safer than real meat. There is no simple answer to whether plant-based meats are riskier from a food safety standpoint than their real-meat counterparts, as no long-term studies have been conducted.

What food businesses serving these products can do is ensure a full ingredients list is available for customers who may inquire, and train staff on how to work with these novel products in a cautious way. Food businesses can help by removing the word “meat” from menus, from signage and branding where possible. This will help consumers avoid the thinking that these products are, in effect, meat.

The Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS) helps Canadian businesses maintain food safety compliance and protect customers from food-borne illness. If you have any questions regarding food safety in your business, contact us for more information.