School cafeterias have long taken the term “nutritious” with a grain – or many grains – of salt. After all, fries are considered a vegetable on many menus. But now in California, they’ve started to play this game with fake meat.
The state of California is investing $700 million in plant-based school meals featuring fake meat products such as the Impossible burger and fake chicken nuggets. The funding will be used, in part, to pay for the plant-based foods, but also to train cafeteria workers in how to properly prepare the fake meat.
The bill’s author, Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, said the purpose of the legislation is to ensure that schools have an “inclusive selection” of foods, especially for families who want their children to maintain a plant-based diet. However, many activists have been spinning the legislation to make it seem as though the policy is about having “healthier” options in school lunch programs.
“We are grateful to see both the legislature and the Governor recognize the cultural shift towards plant-based choices by supporting our children to eat healthier, more climate-friendly, and humane diets,” one activist told Veg News.
Laura Kliman, a product director for Impossible Foods, further pushed the narrative that fake meat is healthier, telling Mashed, “We created these new products so students won’t have to give up their lunchtime favorites in order to have well-balanced, plant-based meals at school. Nutritious food is critical to child development, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of tasting good or the future of our planet.”
But all evidence shows that plant-based synthetic meats are far from the healthier option.
A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry revealed that plant-based chicken products made from soybean concentrate and wheat gluten – two ingredients in Impossible Foods’ synthetic nuggets – are not digested as well as real meat. Despite having almost the same amount of protein on the nutrition label, the body absorbs less than half as much protein from plant-based sources than from real chicken.
Protein absorption is essential in all humans, but especially in children. Protein peptides play a key role in growth and muscle development.
Fake chicken products are also ultra-processed. While the term “plant-based” leads many to think of whole vegetables, synthetic meat products are predominantly made from wheat or pea protein. Moreover, they are loaded with preservatives and coloring agents to make them look like real meat.
One common coloring agent in fake chicken, titanium dioxide, was recently deemed “unfit for human consumption” in a lawsuit filed in California against Mars, the owner of Skittles. The lawsuit noted that titanium dioxide – which gives Skittles their white color – has been heavily regulated outside the United States as a likely carcinogen.
School cafeterias have long been a place where the truth about nutrition is stretched. But California’s taxpayers must really be wondering if it’s worth $700 million to pretend that fake meat nuggets are better than the real thing.