The good, the bad, and the misunderstood: Understanding ingredients in plant-based “meats”

Credit: Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

In today’s day and age, it is incredibly easy to search the internet and find answers to any question you may have. This increased access to information provides an easy avenue for misinformation to spread. With the abundance of searchable information available, it can be difficult to determine which pieces of information are correct. Everyone has a different background, and so some misinformation, if presented well, can be just as believable as information that is factually sound. The problem is exacerbated by the ease of sharing information across social media platforms, where fact-checking information is challenging and often not conducted. Recently, one hot-button issue has been plant-based imitation meats. Imitation meat is plant protein prepared and packaged to look and taste like regular meat, but contains no animal products, and therefore is vegan and vegetarian friendly. Many consumers have made the assumption that “imitation” means high levels of factory processing and dangerous chemicals. Figure 1 lists several additives that appear dangerous or sound like things that should not be in food. However, just because an ingredient in food is also found in something dangerous doesn’t mean it is dangerous, or the food is now dangerous. Consider water, for example. Water is found in both pesticides as well as food, but that doesn’t make it dangerous. What matters is how much, and why the ingredient is in food.

Figure 1. Example image from shared on social media platforms that list ingredients to imply plant-based meats appear unsafe to eat.

Images like Figure 1 ignore sources showing these ingredients are safe not only for consumption, but also exist in foods, medicine, cosmetics, and healthcare products that many people already use on a daily basis. I hope to not only call attention to the spread of misinformation, but also show that imitation meat is not full of dangerous compounds and chemicals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for studying and controlling the use of hazardous ingredients in food. To this end, each of these ingredients has the approval of the FDA to be used in food, and none of them have been shown to injure, kill or cause cancer in human beings as a result of being eaten in food – imitation meat or otherwise.

Below are the ingredients mentioned in Figure 1, which have been misidentified as hazardous for human consumption. Following their names are facts deconstructing what they are, and why they are recognized by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Magnesium carbonate: Magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) is readily available and sold as a supplement and an antacid (similar to TUMS®) in grocery and convenience stores. Beyond that, it is approved by the FDA to be used in food with no limit on amount or concentration in these products. More specifically, it is found in powdered sugars, milk, processed meat, seafood, candies, sport and soft drinks, and cereals.

Ferric phosphate: Not only can humans consume ferric phosphate, but the EPA recognizes ferric phosphate as a safe compound, not hazardous to mammals, fish or birds. The word “ferric” is another name for iron, which is a critical component of your blood, and is required to transport oxygen throughout your body. Ferric phosphate is not as useful to your body as other ingested iron compounds, but your body can still use it, and can be broken down safely. Ferric phosphate is also approved by the FDA for use in food products with no limitations.

Methylcellulose: This ingredient is often used as a bulk-forming laxative. However, there seems to be a common misunderstanding of how laxatives work in people. Eating something with methylcellulose as an ingredient is not going to result in a loss of bowel control reminiscent of Jeff Daniels’ portrayal in the film Dumb and Dumber. Bulk forming laxatives are one of several types of laxatives that get their name from their ability to absorb water, and clump together to help push things through your gastrointestinal tract. At high enough concentrations, it softens stools and can be used to relieve constipation, or help regulate the frequency with which you use the bathroom. However, the concentration of methylcellulose in food will be substantially lower than that used in over-the-counter laxatives. In these instances, it functions as a thickener and stabilizer due to its ability to absorb water, filling the same role as the more well-known xantham gum additive. The use of methylcellulose in food is similar to the relationship dietary fiber plays in your health. Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate that also helps you pass stool more easily. Not only do televised ads sell bulk forming laxatives (think Metamucil®) for daily use, but dietary fiber is a necessary part of a balanced diet.

Titanium dioxide: The purpose of titanium dioxide is not only to serve as a color additive, but also to help protect the product from degradation by dangerous ultraviolet (UV) sunlight. It is considered safe to be used within several products like toothpaste, cosmetics, and food items alike. Through an extensive report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), it was determined titanium dioxide as a food additive is not hazardous to health. As with most metal-containing dusts, the IARC did identify and acknowledge some animal studies that suggested inhalation of high concentrations (higher than that approved for use by the FDA) could be hazardous to animal health, and recommended limitations on inhalation of titanium dioxide in production plants. Despite being labeled as safe in food, the FDA has recognized these studies, and has set specific limits on the amount of titanium dioxide that can be used in food as a precaution. So, unless you go around drinking white food dye, titanium dioxide is unlikely toseverely compromise your health. 

Propylene glycol: is a man-made compound commonly confused with ethylene glycol (which is extremely toxic and not used in food). Propylene glycol is a food additive that helps dissolve certain substances better than water, and is found and approved for use by the FDA in dough, salad dressing, alcoholic drinks, marshmallows, confectionary frostings, drink mixes, and many more products. Beyond food, it is also approved for use in medicines at specified concentrations. While not directly beneficial to your body, propylene glycol is cleared from your body within 48 hours, and is broken down into non-harmful compounds like pyruvic, acetic and lactic acids – which are normally occurring byproducts of human metabolism.

This evidence shows that unfamiliar chemicals are not inherently bad for your health just because they are found in things you wouldn’t eat. Not only are all of these ingredients approved by the FDA for use in food, they are already found in numerous things you’ve likely already eaten or used on your body. As a result, their presence in imitation meat is not surprising, nor should it be alarming. When you see someone claiming that an ingredient is dangerous, look it up on trustworthy websites, like or to better understand their role in food. Or better yet, consult Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) compiled by the FDA. Remember, water is found in concrete, pesticides and paints, but it is also found in vegetables, soups and juices. The coincidence of being found in something bad for you, does not mean unfamiliar ingredients are inherently bad for your health.

By Stephen Matthews, PhD Candidate

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