The last couple of years have seen an exponential growth in plant-based meat alternatives. Seitan chick’n burgers and kebabs are suddenly available everywhere in the UK, the Moving Mountains b12 burger is, if not moving mountains, shifting a few small hills around town and now all the rage is about Beyond Meat’s much anticipated sizzling sausage, the sequel to their ‘bleeding’ burger. And across the pond, Impossible Foods have been struggling to keep up with the demand for their burgers.
As the buzz around mock meats has become deafening, the animal agriculture industry has started to get a bit worried. Milk alternatives were the first to come under fire from the dairy industry and are no longer allowed to be called milk – which has made absolutely no difference to their popularity among the post-milk generation.
Now, every few weeks a new story pops up saying that a certain state or government, lobbied by the meat industry, wants to ban the use of words like ‘burger’ or ‘sausage’ to describe anything other than the real animal-flesh deal. Apparently it’s far too confusing for the simple-minded consumer to read ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ in front of the noun as we have done for decades, so instead our food should be labelled ‘soya discs’ or ‘tofu tubes’… that’s much clearer, right?
And whenever any of these changes are suggested, us vegans think it is ridiculous, groan, tut and sign petitions in opposition. We want to defend our right to call things bacon, chicken, steak and cheese, even if they don’t come from the mass murder and exploitation of animals. Even DEFRA Minister of State Zac Goldsmith agrees that vegetarian food-labelling is already clear enough in a surprisingly supportive statement:
‘Vegetarian sausages and burgers have been on the UK and European market for many years now and where they are clearly and honestly labelled, as the large majority are, consumers are not at all misled.’
Is fake meat normalising the consumption of all meat?
But the other day, as I was munching on an imaginatively named ‘Non-Meat’ burger, I began wondering if we are right to insist that our foods share the same names as meat and other animal-based products. Is creating and eating vegan versions of bacon, beef, chicken or cheese just perpetuating the perception that animal products are an apt food choice for those who don’t want to eat the vegan versions? Instead, should we be shifting societal concepts of food totally away from animal flesh and lactation rather than trying to imitate them?
Now I love the occasional hit of junk food – I’m a sucker for a BBQ chick’n burger or a seitan kebab. And let’s face it, fake meat is fun. Our local Chinese takeaway does an incredible mock squid – and although I don’t know how closely it resembles the cephalopod itself, the faux version is delicious.
But I can’t help think that as long as vegans are imitating and eating their own kinds of ‘meat,’ the rest of the population will go on assuming their kind of meat is also a normal part of the diet. By creating our own animal-friendly versions, are we further normalising the consumption of meat as a whole? Or is it just acknowledging an important truth? People like the taste of animal flesh and therefore we need to provide them with a convincing alternative.
This is the intention of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Their products are supposed to encourage a shift away from meat taken from the dead body of an animal and towards plant-based and lab-grown alternatives. In fact, Impossible Food’s mission is to completely end animal agriculture by 2035.
We are already seeing this shift with a growing number of people choosing a flexitarian diet and reducing their meat intake. According to market research from the NPD Group, 95% of those who tried the Beyond Burger this year also ate meat. Unfortunately though, cow flesh burgers are still by far the most popular choice and according to Burger King (if it is to be believed), plant-based options aren’t making a dent in meat sales.
Is fake meat the only way to seduce someone to the green side?
Despite the high percentage of people trying vegan meats, according to The Grocer, there is still a long way to go. Many UK shoppers view plant-based meat as too expensive, highly processed and lacking in protein. This suggests that as long as vegans are trying to recreate animal meat, our diet will be seen as an inferior imitation. We’re also reinforcing the myth that we can’t live without some kind of meat. So, perhaps, rather than focusing on imitation we should focus on innovation, drawing from other cultures and creating foods that bear no resemblance to meat but are irrefutably delicious in their own right. As food writer Tony Naylor says:
‘If meat-free eating is to gain widespread traction in the UK, we need to look, instead, at exploring cuisines with a long history of meat-free cooking (…) Forcing veganism to rename its burgers and sausages as veggie discs and tempeh tubes would be ludicrous, but looking beyond vegan junk food? That is a great idea.’
Naylor hints at another reason why we might want to move away from the burger obsession: the closer we get to creating realistic alternatives, the less of an argument we have that a vegan diet is healthier. We are now inundated with vegan junk food and, while some of it may be less worse for you than animal-based junk food, we cannot pretend it’s healthy.
I’m sure there will be plenty of people who read this and argue that veganism isn’t about health anyway, it’s about animals. But for many people health is an important motivator and if that means fewer animals are being eaten, shouldn’t we encourage it? According to the NPD research, ‘The heaviest users of plant-based foods are those who are more likely to be on a diet or to have a medical condition.’ The mainstream media will take any opportunity to discredit veganism so let’s not make it easy for them by making plant-based food as processed and unhealthy as its animal-based counterpart.
We are creatures of habit though and although I’d like people to embrace a plant-based diet that is free from anything resembling the flesh of a dead animal, that may just be a little too idealistic. There is probably a reason why, despite vegan food being available since the humble beginnings of humanity, it’s yet to convert the majority of the population.
Fake meats have an important role to play in providing meat-eaters with an easy substitute if they want to take those first steps towards a more plant-centric diet. As Pat Brown, Impossible Foods CEO, says, telling people what to do rarely works so it’s important to meet them where they are (pun not intended) and produce a plant-based food indistinguishable from animal flesh. He argues that most people don’t eat meat because it comes from an animal, they eat it despite this; the origin of their steak is in fact seen by many meat-eaters as a negative. Therefore if they could get everything – taste, textures, smells, nutrients, versatility – from an affordable plant-based alternative, they would. This is probably the primary reason why clinging to the meat nouns is worthwhile and why we should support the development of new meats.
This could well be the ‘inevitable next step in the evolution of meat’ as stated by Liam Pritchett in his thorough article Actually There’s Nothing Fake About Fake Meat, but eventually I’d like to see our evolution take us beyond eating food based on the bodies of dead animals and to a place where we can completely relinquish and redeem ourselves for our long history of violence towards other species.