What Longtime Vegetarians Think About the Plant-Based Meat Boom
This story is part of The Food & Wine Guide to Plant-Based Meat.
We're in a golden age of fake meat. It seems like every week a new pea protein-based meat substitute comes onto the market, each one promising to mimic the flavor and texture of meat better than the last one. As more people reduce their meat consumption for health or environmental reasons, companies like Impossible Meats and Beyond Meat are becoming household names.
But meat alternatives like tofu, tempeh, and seitan have been around for centuries, not to mention more recent innovations like black bean burgers and Morningstar faux bacon. Vegetarianism and veganism are nothing new—indeed they're part of cultural traditions that stretch back thousands of years. If you're already a vegetarian, what is this recent tech-enabled meatless meat boom doing for you?
If you stopped eating meat for environmental reasons, the tech-meat boom probably isn't the foodway revolution that you're looking for. Yes, it's great to have an option at Burger King beyond a bun with cheese on it, but, as writer Alicia Kennedy points out, "convenience and familiarity are dubious drivers of the food economy. After all, they're a major reason for the success of factory-farmed meat despite its myriad problems involving human and animal exploitation, environmental racism, and greenhouse gas emissions." Plus, if you decided to stop eating animals for ethical reasons, is these products' increasing verisimilitude to meat a good thing?
Romy Gill, chef and author of Zaika: Vegan Recipes from India, is all for people eating more plant-based foods, but the new wave of faux meats don't appeal to her. "For me, veganism is not a fad, it's not a money grab. Indian food is very much plant-based, intentionally or not intentionally." Not to mention that these products are far more expensive than vegetarian protein sources like beans, lentils, and pulses. "I disagree with the industry monetizing this," Gill said. "If you want to make a vegetarian lasagna, you can make it yourself, inexpensively."
For longtime vegetarians, the idea of eating something that's formulated to taste more like meat can also be off-putting. Helen Brunner, a strategy coach from Washington, D.C., has been a vegetarian since grade school, when she learned about factory farming in the Weekly Reader, a newspaper distributed through elementary schools. "I have tried all of the fake meat products, and while some may taste OK, I find them somewhat repulsive. It likely works for carnivores or transitioning vegetarians, but I find it nauseating," Brunner said. "I am choosing not to eat meat for ethical and environmental reasons and don't need my food to remind me of what I am rejecting."
Some of the vegetarians I spoke with see an upside, though. Having more options when vegetarian dishes aren't always available isn't lost on them. Sahil Shah, who works at a start-up in the San Francisco area, welcomes the fake-meat boom if it means fewer situations where the vegetarian offerings are truly inadequate. "Growing up, I'd go to a birthday party and I'd always get the cheese pizza. My burger would be lettuce, cheese, tomato. It's so boring," Shah said. Not to mention that the vegetarian options were rarely as substantial as the meat options—a large mushroom, however delicious, is not nutritionally equivalent to a burger patty. The new fake-meat boom offers more variety and, for Shah, an opportunity to cook more recipes that would traditionally be meat-based, like a bolognese. "It makes the cooking of the meal more enjoyable," Shah said.
There are many, many vegetarians on the planet who have been eating three meals a day without new advances in meat technology for years. The new fake meats clearly aren't a solution for people who have learned to live without meat already. It's one thing if you swap your beef burger order for an Impossible patty now and again; quite another if you long ago abandoned burgers altogether. All the vegetarians I talked to agreed that more meatless options were only a good thing. But what's important to keep in mind is that fake meat is just that, an option—merely a small part of the many possibilities out there for plant-based diets.