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Processed foods harm your heart much more than a seekh kabab

Many thoughtful people in the West are beginning to worry about how much meat they eat.

In many countries where vegetarians were once regarded as oddballs, restaurants are making a conscious attempt to cater to them.


But as the doubts about a mostly meat-based diet grow, important questions are beginning to be asked about how much damage the production of meat actually does to the planet and how exactly it does this damage. Nor is it clear if every bright and shining new trend that has been thrown up by the eat-more-plants campaign is here to stay.


   Let’s take the example of plant-based ‘meat’. Around five years ago, it was being talked about as the next big thing. Companies that produced plant-based ‘meat’ saw huge interest from investors and share prices zoomed. Burger King (in the US) put a plant-based burger on the menu and its sales soared. The day is not far off, we were told, when the planet will be saved and public health will improve because we will all switch to plant-based ‘meat’ from the real thing.


   Yeah, well, may be.


   All the current evidence suggests that we may have overestimated the appeal of plant-based ‘meat’. Beyond Meat, the company that pioneered the production of plant-based burgers and the like reported disappointing first quarter results. It declared a net loss of 100 million dollars and a significant drop in total revenue. Figures for the sector as a whole show that it is not growing as much as expected. And it looks as though plant-based ‘meat’ has had very little impact on US meat consumption. The figures suggest that it has either held steady or actually gone up.


   The sector’s defenders say that this is a blip, that Americans will soon settle down to plant-based ‘steaks’. Others say that this is unlikely. Plant-based meat works best in fast-food hamburgers where the real beef patty has virtually no taste anyway and the flavour comes from the sauces and add-ons. It makes very little difference to the overall flavour of the burger if you replace the beef patty with a plant-based substitute. But outside of the fast-food sector, they say, plant-based substitutes won’t really catch on in the long run.


   It is too early to say if this gloomy prognosis is accurate but the plant-based protein sector has also been hit by aggressive, negative campaigning from the meat industry which has attacked the merits it claims for its products.


   The first claim advanced for plant-based meat is that it is healthy. We all know that red meat causes heart attacks. So, surely all substitutes are to be welcomed? Except that the truth is not quite so straightforward.


"If you want to reduce methane emissions, a more effective way of doing this would be to remove milk, dahi, paneer, cheese, ice-cream, lassi, mithais and the like from your diet."

   Stay with me here because though the science may sound boring, it is important. The claim that heart patients may die sooner than those with healthy hearts rests on the presence of a compound called TMAO (for short) in the blood. Red meat does not provide TMAO directly but it contains two chemical compounds (choline and L-Carnitine) that are metabolised inside our body and turn into TMAO in the liver. So, if red meat can lead to the creation of TMAO then it’s bad for you, right?


   Well, yes and no. Many diets that are rich in red meat (Mediterranean, for instance) don’t lead to an increase in heart disease in the way that the American diet does. Studies of healthy omnivores who eat plant-heavy diets have failed to find that this has benefitted their health. Scientists now believe that all red meat by itself is not necessarily unhealthy.


   What seems to matter is what kind of meat you consume. The evidence suggests that food from animals and birds reared in industrial conditions is the problem. Moreover studies of TMAO levels in non-vegetarians have revealed that processed meat is the real culprit. Fresh, free range meat is not as dangerous as doctors have told us. It’s industrial and processed foods we have to worry about.


   What does this have to do with plant-based foods? Well, if the new orthodoxy is that processed foods are the real villain, then you have to ask yourself how plant-based ‘meat’ is actually created. Hamburger patties do not grow on trees. The short answer is that industrial processes are required to create fake ‘meat’. So, asks the meat industry, what’s more dangerous, eating a fresh steak or a heavily processed artificial food?


   It is an important question because processed foods are on the rise all over the world. Over half the food eaten in the UK is ultra-processed. In the US, the figure is even higher. The figures are much lower for India but they are going up. Free range meat is becoming rarer as industrial meat and poultry farming are taking over. The chances are that the next chicken tikka you will eat or even the egg you ate for breakfast came from an industrial operation.


   The environmental objection to meat has more substance. A cow releases enough methane to contribute to global pollution almost as much as a car does. The impact can be overstated.  (Cows contribute only three per cent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions) But it is undeniable. There is, therefore, a strong argument for restricting the rearing of cows.


   Except that even this has little to do with vegetarians or plant-based foods. In nearly every country (and certainly in India) where cows are reared, the majority are farmed for milk not for beef. So, if you want to reduce methane emissions, a more effective way of doing this would be to remove milk, dahi, paneer, cheese, ice-cream, lassi, mithais and the like from your diet. This will be more effective than eating a fake meat hamburger.


   In India, plant-based meat is still an elite concern. But the lesson we should take away from all of this research is: be careful how many processed foods you use. The chemicals that are needed to put them on your grocery shelves may harm your heart much more than a seekh kabab. Also: look for the origins of the meat, eggs and chicken you eat. The processed stuff will hurt your heart. It will cost more to eat healthier but try and avoid industrial broiler chicken and eggs.


   I would not advise Indians to give up dairy: it is too important a part of our diets. But it is certainly possible for us to cut down on the quantity consumed.


   As for all the plant-based meat substitutes, they may make sense to Americans. But India has the world’s finest vegetarian food. There is no need for us to eat a highly processed food that is made to taste like meat.


   Eat simply. Eat well. And eat fresh food that comes from a farm and not from a factory.



Posted On: 09 Sep 2022 12:10 PM
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