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Don’t ignore food safety with plant-based meats

Ask someone about plant-based meats — also called meat substitutes, alternative meat or even fake meats —and you’ll get a range of opinions on both sides of the fence. 

Examples of  some plant-based meats are Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, some chicken nuggets, sausage and even bacon. They’re made from ingredients such as soy, pea protein, natural flavors, and dried yeast, among others. Bottomline: they contain no meat.

On the negative side of the fence, some people point to research that warns because they’re ultraprocessed, they are not healthy for you.

While processed foods might have some sugar, oil and salt added to them, ultra processed foods go a step farther. They could, for example, also be made with artificial flavors and colors, preservatives for shelf stability and ingredients for texture.

Some of these ingredients, sodium, total fat, and saturated fatty acids to name a few, are linked to non-communicable diseases, with some of them even exceeding recommended levels.

Sodium especially is a concern here, since a high intake of sodium has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. And eating too much sugar and unhealthy fatty acids is linked to obesity and a risk for type 2 diabetes.

“In general, ultraprocessed foods are foods that have been combined with a significant amount of manufactured ingredients,” says Scott Keatley, registered dietician and co-owner of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy.

Many, but not all, plant-based burgers are considered ultraprocessed, according to research.

Some examples of ultra processed foods are hot dogs, deli meat, fast food, packaged cookies, and salty snacks such as potato chips.

On the positive side of the fence 
According to research funded by the World Health Organization that analyzed the nutritional value of ultra processed plant-based burgers, a shift toward plant-based diets has the potential to reduce non-communicable diseases, but only if the foods in question contain the right ingredients.

A new study published in the the British Journal of Nutrition looked at ultraprocessed plant-based burgers sold in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Lisbon and London.

Findings came in mixed. Ultraprocessed plant-based burgers were found to be a source of protein, dietary fibre and essential minerals.

The good news here is that eating plant-based protein, dietary fibre and minerals, which are “abundantly” present in plant-based burgers, has been linked to a reduced risk of certain non-communicational diseases, such as heart disease.

Not only that, since in Europe, the intake of certain nutrients, among them dietary fibre and minerals such as iron and potassium are generally below daily recommended levels, eating these burgers may actually contribute to reaching daily requirements.

However, the researchers warn that besides the beneficial nutritional ingredients in ultraprocessed plant-based foods, they can also be a source of unhealthy compounds such as sodium and fats.

What about food safety
During a presentation, “Let’s Get to the Meat of Food Safety and Plant-based Protein as a Meat Substitute,” Mary Morris-Donaldson, a food-safety expert at Michigan State University, pointed out that there are many reasons behind consumer demand for these “meatless” products. Many believe they’re healthier. Others say animal welfare is an issue since animals don’t have to be killed, and others point to environmental benefits that come with not having to raise animals.

Morris-Donaldson said that although protein consumption is going up worldwide, it’s unlikely these plant-based meats will replace meat. Yet it will provide for more options for protein in diets.

“It’s not a one-to-one exchange,” Morris-Donaldson said, referring to meat and plant-based meats. One shouldn’t be considered healthier than the other They just have different profiles.”

While foodborne illnesses are often linked to meat, chicken and seafood, there’s are also biological contaminants that can come into the picture when dealing with plants. Some of these are  viruses, bacteria, yeasts, parasites and mycotoxins, which are referred to as pathogenic microorganisms. In other words, there’s a potential for microbial contamination when plants are exposed to the soil. Wildlife roaming through a crop can be another problem.

Then, too there are naturally occurring contaminants in the soil such as lead and cadmium. But manufacturers are required to meet certain standards to make sure they’re not in the plants.

Allergies also come into the picture. Some plant-based meats do contain food allergens such as wheat, soy, peanut and sesame. which Morris-Donaldson said can cause very serious reactions in people. However any of the nine food allergens named by the USDA — milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame — must be stated on the label, which means consumers need to study the labels.

Different but the same
While plant-based meats are different from actual meats, the same food-safety precautions need to be taken when preparing, serving and eating them.

One helpful tip is to treat them as though they are raw meat — in other words follow the same food-safety guidelines for raw meat as offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( 

To begin with, always wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before handling raw foods and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.

Keep plant-based meats separate from raw meats, even in the grocery cart, so they don’t become contaminated by any pathogens that might be on the meat or on the meat packaging. Also, don’t using the same cutting board or kitchen counter that you’ve used for raw meat, unless, of course, you’ve thoroughly cleaned them.

Plant-based meats need to be cooked to the right temperature to make them safe. Advice from the CDC includes these tips. Cook hamburgers to at least 160 degrees F. All poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F and fish to 145 degrees.

Never store plant-based foods at room temperature. Instead store them in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or lower and in the freezer at 0 degrees or lower. 

No if, buts or ors about  any of this. 

“There’s no reason to bellyache over a foodborne illness,” said Morris-Donaldson.

 (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News,click here)

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