And Now, a Word from Your Planet: Burgers

In my most recent Fast & Curious column, I mused about my preference for non-meat burgers that don’t masquerade as meat and a spectator pointed out that what I was actually saying was that I preferred whole foods to processed foods and that we happen to have an expert on the subject right here in Sydney and wasn’t it about time I spoke with him?

To which I replied, “Yes.”

Dr. Michael Milburn

Dr. Michael Milburn

That’s how I came to be speaking with Dr. Michael P. Milburn on Monday about such a wide range of subjects I’ve had to ruthlessly edit the transcript to keep the focus on the topic I’d initially hoped to discuss: the link between processed food and the environment. (To be honest I haven’t been entirely successful — related topics, particularly those central to Milburn’s practice, kept creeping in. But I’ve decided that’s okay, they give you a hint of discussions to come.)

Still, if you’re reading this on Wednesday, then the United Nations Climate Action Summit just happened in New York, school children (and others) worldwide are preparing to take to the streets in Friday’s global climate strike and — in news that should be of special interest if you live on an island attached artificially to a peninsula — a major UN report says the world’s oceans are “under severe strain from climate change.” So this week’s article will focus (mainly) on the environmental impacts of processed foods.

 

Actually, when it comes to foods like plant-based burgers, which was the starting point for our discussion on Monday, Milburn has two terms he prefers to “processed”:

People have come to call processed foods these days ultra-processed, which I like, it has that extra push to it [laughs]. The food writer Michael Pollan…he actually has a great quote about them, he calls them ‘edible food-like substances.’ I love that too.

Beyond Burger ingredients. (Source: Beyond Meat website https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/the-beyond-burger/)

Source: Beyond Meat website https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/the-beyond-burger/

Before considering the environmental impacts of “edible food-like substance,” I’d like to consider the substances themselves. I have eaten Beyond Burgers, but listening to Milburn’s account of their manufacture really gave me pause:

If you look at the plant-based burgers, for example, instead of using beans, which are one of the healthiest foods that you can eat, they take the beans apart in factories and they use the isolated proteins so you really don’t have any of the fiber or vitamins, minerals, anything — there’s nothing left in it at all, it’s just the protein, pure protein.

[And then] they use different kinds of fat. A lot of them use palm oil…but they tend to prefer canola oil, …then you have the coconut oil, a lot of them have gone with [that].

So…you have the protein on one hand and then you have the fat and then you need a matrix to put it in and so what do you choose? Well, essentially, cardboard…If you look at the ingredients, it’s called methyl cellulose…it’s basically cardboard. And then you need to give it some kind of color, so there’s some kind of coloring used, sometimes it might just be beet juice …And then you’re going to have to put flavoring in it of some kind…[S]o it’s a cardboard base with some fat and isolated protein and you know, you think about that — it’s an edible, food-like substance.

Basically, says Milburn, food scientists are “disassembling” whole foods into their component parts then reassembling (some of) those parts into these food-like substances.

And the implications for the environment are significant.

 

The first problem is the energy this process requires. Says Milburn:

Think about ultra-processed foods,…think about the distance traveled by the food. First of all the food is…grown somewhere, then it’s taken to some factory where it’s literally disassembled, and then the disassembled parts are shipped somewhere else to be put together in another factory and then those particular products are again shipped, so it’s like these multiple levels of disassembling and re-assembling and shipping all over the world. You think about that compared to purchasing, say, a whole bunch of your beans and legumes from Speerville, New Brunswick.

Then there are the problems associated with the individual ingredients.

View of palm oil plantation in Java, Indonesia.

View of palm oil plantation in Java, Indonesia. (Photo by Achmad Rabin Taim from Jakarta, Indonesia, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Take palm oil — it’s the villain in the piece in Indonesia, where swaths of rain forest are being burned to facilitate its production. As the New York Times reported on September 17:

Hundreds of wildfires burned across Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra on Tuesday, producing thick clouds of smoke that disrupted air travel, forced schools to close and sickened many thousands of people. Poorly equipped firefighters were unable to bring them under control.

Officials said that about 80 percent of the fires were set intentionally to make room for palm plantations, a lucrative cash crop that has led to deforestation on much of Sumatra…

The fires in Indonesia and the Amazon contribute to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and by destroying trees and vegetation that remove such emissions from the air.

But canola oil, says Milburn, also raises flags, as it is:

…mostly genetically modified so that it can tolerate [the weedkiller] Roundup, and there’s a whole controversy over Roundup [and] its carcinogenic potential, made by Monsanto.

Controversy over Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate, ramped up in 2015 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, undertook a review of existing studies and concluded that glyphosate can “probably” cause cancer. ┬áMonsanto has lost some high profile court cases over the weedkiller in the years since (but it doesn’t seem poised to disappear anytime soon, as that New York Times article I’ve linked to points out.)

And then you have coconut oil, which Milburn calls “the greatest health food hoax of the last 20 years” (and clearly a subject for a future discussion):

These sort of large-scale, industrial foods have all these unknown environmental implications on things all around the globe, that we’re so disconnected from but at the same time, we’re responsible for. I mean, it’s complicated and it’s distant…but at the end of the day, we’re connected it all by going to the grocery store or to a fast food outlet and purchasing these kinds of food.

But don’t despair!

There are alternatives — good ones.

 

Milburn, who has a background in science and training in “complementary” medicine (particularly traditional Chinese medicine), has been exploring the links between diet and health for years:

When I work with people, a lot of my work really comes down to getting people to eat differently because so many of people’s health problems are deeply related to food. But the challenge is not that people make bad choices it’s that they eat what everybody else eats and…the whole culture’s food is flawed, so, you know, it gets to be somewhat of a deeper problem. And the crux of it, I would say, after almost 30 years of working with people is — people have to learn to cook.

To which end, Milburn offers cooking and nutrition classes.

Variety of legumes

Legumes. (Photo by 821292 [CC0] https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/cc0/ via Wikimedia Commons)

I told him I was going to run by him the two most common excuses I’ve heard (from myself) for not cooking.

First: “I don’t have time.”

Milburn made short work of this:

People have huge amounts of time…I mean, many people are trying to detox from Facebook and Social Media these days because they realize it just takes up huge amounts of time…There are a few people that don’t have much time but…the vast majority of people have lots of time.

(I had a sudden vision of my self, last Saturday, finding time to binge three episodes of The Great British Bake Off and yet somehow having no time to cook some food to carry me through the busy first half of the week.)

But even if you are pressed for time, says Milburn, making soup is not time consuming — you just throw a bunch of things in a pot. You don’t even have to chop them, you can just cook everything then use an immersion blender to turn it into soup.

He had me. But then I trotted out excuse number two: Healthy ingredients are too expensive.

Milburn was ready for this one too, pointing out that the foods that provide the basis for a healthy, plant-based diet — particularly lentils and beans — are inexpensive and can be bought in bulk:

[Y]ou can get these giant bags of these things that are extremely cheap that really allow you to spend a little bit more on other things, you know, fruits and vegetables. And if you look at some of the super-healthy best values…red cabbage is one of the most nutritious vegetables and you get a big, giant head of it for a few bucks and it will last for a week.

He acknowledges that people used to the unholy trinity of salt, fat and sugar — which he says our brains are hardwired to crave and the food industry is happy to provide — will have to learn to appreciate whole foods, but he says it can be done, and it doesn’t even take that long:

[I]t’s a training to go through, to de-couple the pleasure of fat, salt, sugar that is not good for our health and instead develop tastes for real food. You know, fruit is sweet, but if you’re used to a lot of sugar, it isn’t sweet enough for you. But if you give it enough time, then fruit will be sweet enough for you. The same thing with salt, if you go four to six weeks without that high level of salt, a tiny little bit of salt tastes salty.

As I mentioned at the outset, my conversation with Milburn covered too much ground to report in a single article, so I hope to explore some of the other topics we touched on in future pieces.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to cook some lentils.

 

Featured image: Bean burger by Maximilian Paradiz from Amsterdam, Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

NOTE: This article has consisted of me disassembling my interview with Dr. Milburn and reassembling it to suit my own narrative purposes. If you prefer your interviews whole, you can watch Dr. Milburn explain the phenomenon of the plant-based burger in this video, part of a community video project by friend-of-the-Spectator Madeline Yakimchuk: