Ditching meat doesn’t mean that come BBQ season you’ll be choking down a crumbly mash of beans for your burger — technology is catching up with vegetarians, offering plant-based burgers that “bleed” and promising lab-grown meat without killing animals.
Such products are already on menus. Across restaurants in the US, the Impossible Burger uses a mix of wheat and soy hemoglobins to offer a texture similar to beef, including “blood” oozing out of the centre, and rival Beyond Meat has said it hopes to have its pea-protein burgers on store shelves in the UK this year. Waitrose has tapped meat-free products from Holland’s The Vegetarian Butcher to use in its own-brand ready meals, while British startup Moving Mountains’ beetroot-bleeding burger is on the lunch menu at vegetarian restaurant Mildreds in Dalston, London.
Will meat-like veggie burgers confuse shoppers?
“On first glance, the burger patty looks exactly like a raw meat burger, except the juicy ‘bleed’ comes from beetroot juice and succulent texture from coconut oil,” explains founder and CEO Simeon van der Molen. “Vitamin B12, traditionally associated with red meats, has also been added so that the Moving Mountains burger can genuinely compete with a beef burger and provide essential nutrients.”
Will meat-like veggie burgers confuse shoppers? American beef suppliers believe it may, with the US Cattlemen’s Association asking the government to keep “meat” and “beef” as protected terms for animal flesh “harvested in the traditional manner”. Jaap Korteweg, director at The Vegetarian Butcher, says that although top chefs and culinary journalists report his fake meat is “indistinguishable from the real thing,” the name and the packaging make it clear the food is vegetarian, so you shouldn’t accidentally pick up a fake-chicken korma — though even if you did you may not notice.
But the farmers aren’t pacified. This month, clean eating nonprofit The Good Food Institute (GFI) and six plant-based and clean meat companies fired back at the petition from the US Cattlemen’s Association to the United States Department of Agriculture calling for outright censorship of plant-based and clean meat company labels. The Cattlemen’s Associated argues that meat alternatives – both plant-based and grown from cells in a lab “directly compete, or will soon directly compete, against actual beef products that are born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner”.
The GFI, however, believes the proposal would violate the First Amendment, which protects the speech of plant-based and clean meat companies; as long as consumers are not misled, they have a free speech right to call their products what they are.
But the beef industry’s complaints aren’t evidence that fake meat is necessarily convincing, says Ricardo San Martin, professor at UC Berkeley Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. It’s simply how incumbents react when any alternative steps in, with similar nomenclature and shelf space disputes around dairy-free milk and vegan mayonnaise, he says.
Shoppers taking a close look at the labels may not only be surprised to find such burgers are free of beef, but that they’re full of unrecognisable ingredients, too. Turning plants into something texturally similar to meat is a “harsh design constraint,” says San Martin. “The more you mimic meat, the less sustainable you are.”
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That’s because the process used to make fake meat from plant protein uses highly refined soy isolates, the protein extracted from a soya bean, which can have a large carbon footprint. There’s environmental benefits to ditching meat, but such highly processed plant burgers aren’t as green as standard veggie patties. Indeed, by giving up on the hunt for a perfect meat texture in favour of simply good tasting vegetarian alternatives, producers could drop the added protein that we in the Western world already eat too much of and let hungry customers benefit from all the nutritional good inherent in plants.
But both van der Molen and Korteweg believe that texture is key to convincing everyone to try plant-based meat, not only vegetarians. “With our products we focus on meat lovers — whether they are carnivores, flexivores, omnivores or herbivores,” Korteweg says. “It is our ideal to have meat enthusiasts experience our products and have them realise they don’t have to miss out on anything if they take animal meat out of their diet for one or more days.”
Convince enough consumers, and one day the grocery store aisle may feature meat from animals, plants, and from the lab, assuming the latter two can keep up with scaling production. But getting the technology right may not be the biggest challenge facing fake meat — it may be us. “Meat is such a cultural thing, it’s very deeply rooted in our western culture,” San Martin says. “We have to consider that this is about food, not just about technology, and food is culture and habits and traditions.” But with the number of vegetarians and flexitarians on the rise, those habits could be set to change, whether meat producers like it or not.
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