You’ve likely passed them in the frozen aisle at the grocery store. Alt-meats are everywhere, and people love them. According to Market Watch, this sector of the food industry could be worth $140 billion (or 10% of the meat market) by the end of the 2020s. Their projected popularity checks out, given the climate crisis. Artificial meat is purported to be better for the environment because it exists outside the factory farming paradigm, which accounts for 60% of all greenhouse gasses. But are alt-meats actually healthy to eat? That answer depends on who you ask — and how you feel about hemp in your food.

Applied Food and Sciences is among the most recent companies to launch an ingredient that will be used to make meat analogues. This new food compound is called PurHP-75, a hemp seed protein ingredient. The Austin, Texas-based business uses hemp hearts, or “dehulled inner-white parts of the hemp seed,” and contains 75% protein, including the nine essential amino acids.

“We wanted to create something that was food-driven, so taste was paramount,” says Brian Happel, the director of nutrition at Applied Food and Sciences, in a press release. “For hemp seed protein, this means removing the outer shell and ample color sorting to present a clean ingredient that is white instead of green and is void of bitter flavor typically associated with hemp protein.”

Applied Food Sciences’ goal is to create a product that doesn’t taste like hemp. While traditional hemp ingredients often have a bitter taste and gritty texture, Applied Food Sciences says it achieves tasteless glory by removing the outer casing of the hemp seed to get to the inner part of the grain, where the heart lies. The resulting protein has a neutral taste and smooth texture.

The ingredients in the remaining 15% of PurHP-75 are unclear, and while we admittedly have never used the product, it’s objectively fair to be skeptical of the ingredients — have you seen the labels on every food package in America? According to a report by Eat This Not That, protein powder companies are not required by law to reveal the level of toxins and chemicals in their products. To be clear, Eat This Not That’s story isn’t about Applied Food Sciences, but it highlights some of the business practices — and lack of regulation — of some of the most popular protein powder brands. Even ones that are certified USDA organic. 

It’s worth noting that in 2014 Applied Food Sciences was fined by the Federal Trade Commission for using the “results of a flawed study to make baseless weight-loss claims about a green coffee extract to retailers, who repeated those claims” in the marketing of the product to consumers. Applied Food Sciences paid $3.5 million in violations.

Plant Based Foods is another company using hemp seed in its newest line of faux burgers, patties, and crumbles. Hemp is the central ingredient in its “meat.” CEO Braelyn Davis says making hemp meat not only makes the brand stand out from the competition, but it also validates hemp as a superfood.  

“We watched Impossible [Foods] do their things, we saw Beyond [Meat] do their thing and we saw a white space open,” Davis said during an interview at the Winter Fancy Food Show, the Specialty Food Association’s convention in Vegas. “Consumers are becoming savvier to the fact that just because [something is] vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great for you…hemp isn’t that way. It’s nutrient-dense and [ours is] sustainably sourced.”

While studies solidifying hemp’s place in the kingdom of superfoods still lack, enough data exists to suggest it’s more than just an “herb.” A superfood is defined by Merriam Webster as, “a food that’s rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.” Hemp seeds, or hemp hearts, are comprised of 30% fat and are rich in two essential fatty acids: Linoleic acid (omega-6) and Alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). Superfood boxes checked.

Hemp’s purported health benefits aside, are alt-meats better than animal meat? For the environment, yes. Their low environmental impact sits at the top of the list of “pros” when sussing out the benefits and pitfalls of this trending food. Alt-meats don’t require massive acreage or feeding and slaughtering livestock to produce, ultimately minimizing the production of greenhouse gasses. Plus, growing hemp — even for food — can help sequester carbon and remediate soil if cultivated properly. But alt-meats — even the most popular brands — are highly processed, contain roughly the same amount of saturated fat and sodium as traditional meat (according to Bon Appetit), and are far removed from the foods our ancestors ate. 

Another core ingredient in Plant Based Foods’ new line of hemp meats is pea protein. It seems fine on its face — totally healthy! But pea protein is made by chemically extracting protein from yellow field peas. While “chemical extraction” is a trigger word, the process alone doesn’t necessarily make something unhealthy. It isolates the protein, however, and essentially strips the pea of its power — all of its magnesium, folate, potassium, and fiber. It’s like CBD or THC isolate versus full-spectrum cannabis: The entourage effect reveals the depth of the plant’s capacity to heal. The hemp burgers also contain an emulsifier and thickening agent known as methylcellulose, which isn’t a naturally occurring element (if that wasn’t clear). Plant Based Foods isn’t the only alt-meat brand using processed ingredients. It’s the norm for most veggie meats.

All this is to say: The alt-meat market still has room to grow. Sure, they may offer an “excellent” source of fiber (currently 95% of Americans are not consuming the recommended daily dose of fiber), but is processed food where you want to source nutrients from? It’s possible that some packaged, frozen foods are better than others, but nothing beats eating natural, whole foods. While humans undeniably need to eat less meat, particularly beef, it’s important not to get swept up in the faux meat marketing of hemp as the latest climate-friendly superfood you didn’t know your body needed.

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