The BBC's food programme usually strikes a celebratory note, whatever “food story” they tell, and this documentary is well worth a listen. It manages to explore this this often contentious territory without any rigidity or judgement. It is full of sane voices who refuse to be drawn into culture wars, and people who rightly celebrate their ability to create tasty enjoyable foods in new ways, within existing food cultures. And as such it naturally leaves some issues aside.
As anyone who has attended one of my courses, or had a consultation about diet and health will know, there is a powerful but all too-often overlooked signal in the data about health and diet. Essentially it is whole and-or fresh plant foods that promote and protect our health; the more of these we eat, and the more types of these we eat, the healthier we are. So from this perspective the growth in Veganism and the advent of cleverly processed plant protein products to replace meat is very intriguing.
Veganism basically a moral or ethical idea. This has a number of effects. Firstly Veganism, as an -ism can become a force within the wider culture wars, which seem to have replaced calm and personable discussion in our society. Secondly because it is primarily about simply avoiding all animal products it is a one-dimensional approach - even though it shifts diet firmly in the right direction.
What is missing is the insight that it is whole unprocessed foods, eaten in variety that help us most. Some processing is helpful (for example cooking tomatoes and heating grains and roots) but there is usually a point beyond which processing starts to take away more than it gives.
This is where the Meat-Free Meat phenomenon is particularly interesting. Is it the e-cigarette of the diet world - a way of gradually deconstructing a habit known to be harmful to long-term health? Or is it essentially a new way for the same companies to continue to exploit a set of habits?
Overall there are several reasons to think that even though "meat-free meats" may not be ideal foods in all respects, that they will have advantages over real flesh. Some of the reasons that meats have their unwanted effects on body chemistry and inflammation is through the high concentrations of leucine, haem iron and bacterial contamination. Plant-based foods, that are low in carnitine are unlikely be converted to TMAO by those who still regularly also consume real meat. But are these meat-free meats as healthy as the whole grains, beans, mushrooms/fungi from which they were made? Almost certainly not.
Part of what meat dishes delicious is the presence of fat, and salt, and often added sugar. Meat imitations have to hit a certain number of 'notes': texture, umame, saltiness, fattiness and ideally a little sweetness in the meal or finished product. This fat-sugar-salt combination is the unholy trinity that sells junk of all types by triggering our innate biological desires.
But perhaps this is to get a little too serious. Yes, it is important to understand clearly what is the healthiest possible diet, but there are important other considerations in life. Listen to the sane voices in this episode and enjoy your food, whatever it may be.