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“Plant-Based Beef” is not Food — an open letter to America’s Test Kitchen

I must publicly express my disappointment at your attempt to normalize “plant-based beef” and synthetic vanilla in your May/June 2022 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

Your publications contain some of the only truly good writing on cooking in circulation. Not only are your recipes thoroughly tested prior to publication, but your writers blend chemistry and art skillfully in their creation. This is the essence of cooking–an art bolstered by an intelligent understanding of the chemical principles at work.

You also spent years bolstering your credibility by not accepting advertising for your magazines, and purchasing all equipment you test at retail price in order to keep your reviews objective.

Given the typically high standards you have set for yourself, it’s a disappointment to see you promoting items that should not be considered food by any definition. In particular, I’d like to address “plant-based meats” and “imitation vanilla extract”.

“Plant-Based Meats”

“Plant-based meats” are nothing more than a synthetic Frankenfood masquerading as a “vegan health food”. The ingredient list of “Impossible Foods beef” is:

  • water
  • textured wheat protein
  • coconut oil
  • potato protein
  • “natural flavors” (whatever those are)
  • leghemoglobin (soy)
  • yeast extract
  • salt
  • konjac gum
  • xanthan gum
  • soy protein isolate
  • collection of vitamins

Leghemoglobin is a controversial ingredient. It’s entirely new to the human food chain, and it required clearance for use an an additive in the United States and Canada. (On that note, both agencies refer to plant-based beef as “simulated meat product”. Consider on that basis alone if you should be promoting “simulated” foods of any kind.) The argument from Impossible Foods is that soy leghemoglobin is “sage” because its 3D computer models show a “similar structure to hemoglobin and myoglobin”. Impossible Foods admits that soy leghemoglobin is entirely genetically engineered; they created a yeast to make the leghemoglobin found in soybeans. The correct conclusion from this admission is that this molecule shouldn’t even really be called “soy leghemoglobin”, because this implies the additive is derived from soy, and not completely synthesized. A good review of soy leghemoglobin can be found here, which includes concerns the FDA raised, Impossible Food’s inane responses, and the puzzling decision for the FDA to ultimately approve the additive.

The term “natural flavors” has never been legally defined by any regulating body. The accepted definition is “flavors extracted from plants and animals to create flavor enhancers used in processed foods.” Yum. This definition says nothing about how these “extracts” are processed. Processing can take something that has nutritional value into something that is ultimately harmful. Vegetable and seed oils are the most obvious example of this.

The remaining ingredients are sad imitations of real food. There’s more to a potato than “potato protein”, and fortifying foods with vitamins isn’t as healthy or effective as simply eating foods that naturally contain them.

Let us move to the other brand you’re promoting– “Beyond Meat”. The ingredient list in this package of mush is:

  • water
  • pea protein
  • expeller-pressed canola oil
  • refined coconut oil
  • rice protein
  • natural flavors (here we go again)
  • dried yeast
  • methylcellulose
  • cocoa butter
  • potato starch
  • salt
  • potassium chloride
  • beet powder color
  • apple extract
  • pomegranate concentrate
  • sunflower lecithin
  • vinegar
  • lemon juice
  • various vitamins and minerals

At least this list resembled things that are edible a bit more. But this attempt to mimic natural sources of plant and animal protein is also misguided. Pea protein doesn’t contain any essential fatty acids that can be found in shrimp or nuts. The body cannot synthesize these fatty acids, and they are essential nutrients. Pea protein is also not a complete protein. This is still a highly processed brand-name package of garbage.

Plant-based meat is not an even nutritional swap. This investigation from Duke University puts lab-coat-approved science behind what the rest of us knew as common sense– you can’t just take isolated “nutrients” out of real food and assume your body will absorb them the same way. Soylent tried this approach, and failed miserably. After the fad died down and it became more socially acceptable to criticize that synthetic drink, the internet is full of the issues people had after consuming it for long periods of time. Why would you promote the solid-food version of Soylent?

You even admit in your article that these are “imitation products”. You advise to “add extra liquid” because plant-based meats release smaller amount of liquid than animal meat when cooked in chili or spaghetti. That “liquid” is the rendered fat and other juices. Not only does that contain essential nutrients, but it’s what makes these dishes so savory and satisfying. Your fix to deal with the lack of “liquid” in plant-based meat is to….add water? What an appetizing chili recipe.

Imitation Vanilla Extract

Have you ever wondered where imitation vanilla extract comes from? Coal tar. Ethyl vanillin is a coal-tar derivative that mimics the flavor of the real vanillin found in vanilla beans. A full history of imitation vanilla can be found in this well-written article.

My issue with the promotion of imitation vanilla extract is more of an artistic one than a nutritional one. Food chemistry was supposed to help us understand and appreciate the natural world; it wasn’t supposed to try to create a cheap imitation of it. Vanilla isn’t just vanillin. You admit in your own article on vanilla that pure vanilla extract has more than 500 flavor volatiles. Why promote the use of a cheap imitation that flattens the gift a vanilla bean gives us? There’s no art or soul in that.

Conclusion

America’s Test Kitchen is known for showing the rest of us that cooking is a near perfect blend of art and chemistry. There’s hard science and there’s an exquisite soul to both preparing food and eating it. Your articles, books, and shows have brought more than recipes to the world–they have brought an appreciation for an understanding of the chemical principles that lie underneath ingredients and techniques. Don’t throw away a well-earned reputation by promoting anti-food and flat, fake ingredients.

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