A woman from New Jersey has stolen a flock of chickens and is hiding them in her basement. Another is working undercover at a dairy farm and plans, very soon, to liberate Cow No. 17, whom she has grown to love. A third tells the story of how she can no longer eat in any restaurant that is not vegan, since every time she does she ends up yelling at a stranger, telling him just how that piece of meat got on his plate. Heads around the room nod.
These testimonials were at a recent meeting of Vegan Lady Boss, which describes itself as “a global network of vegan women of all identities + backgrounds who meet to advance their advocacy + professional development.” Think Lean In for the meat-and-dairy-averse. There were about 80 women in the room.
“It’s a little … intense,” says Olivia F., who was there in the hopes of finding tips on how to grow her vegan-snack business. “Liz Dee [the founder and organizer] holds a timer, and you have 20 seconds to explain who you are and why you are a vegan.” No men, no non-vegans allowed. “Let’s just say that most of these women are not the market for the new faux-meat products,” Olivia continues. They would never eat anything that reminds them of a real cow.”
Think Lean In for the meat-and-dairy-averse.
Olivia and I were talking about the reception of the new plant-based burgers among people who you think would be its main champions: people who have forsworn meat and dairy products because of their love of animals, the environment, personal health, being a hectoring holier-than-thou pain in the ass, or all of the above. (Not that we’re judging, but WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey has declared that only vegetarian food can be served at work-related functions, and you can’t expense your ham sandwich if you go out to lunch. O.K., we’re judging.) Impossible Foods C.E.O. Pat Brown, who helped create the Impossible Burger, has called the meat industry “the greatest threat to the future of our planet, period.” And there is no question veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise here and in Europe. There’s an explosion of vegan-based business too—restaurants, foods, fashion business, even child-care centers. (“Cultivate noble children using social neuroscience,” burbles one such center in Texas.)
So it’s not surprising the new generation of faux meats is doing so well. With the Impossible Burger, the new meatier taste is made possible because of the ingredient soy leghemoglobin, or “heme.” Heme mimics the taste of blood, and blood is what makes meat taste like meat. The Beyond Burger uses beet juice to create the redness of blood oozing from the burger.
At any rate, many vegans are delighted with this new plant-based alternative. After all, any new foodstuff that is a) tastier than Tofurky and b) might encourage carnivores to convert to a plant-based diet would be greeted by vegans with unbridled enthusiasm. Right?
Not So Fast, Bucko
Look on the comments sections of vegan Web sites, and you’ll see emotions about faux-meat run high: there’s everything from ambivalence to repulsion to moral outrage. Some believe fake meat may be a gateway drug to the hard stuff. One woman summed it up: “The point of being a vegan is to avoid meat, so why would I eat something that pretends to BE meat?” But maybe we’re asking the question to the wrong consumer group. Faux meat may be meant not so much for vegans as for carnivores. It’s a much bigger market (plus the 60 percent of self-identifying vegetarians who include meat in their diet), and they’re already committed to the taste, appearance, and texture of the real thing.
The meat wars are ignited by two main issues: how the new products came to market, and whether they are as healthy as plain old fruits and vegetables. (Spoiler alert: No.)
Some believe fake meat may be a gateway drug to the hard stuff.
First, the not-so-delicious irony: in order to get F.D.A. approval for this new heme molecule, the company that made the Impossible Burger did animal testing on rats. They didn’t have to do this; as C.E.O. Brown explained, providing testing results was voluntary (though not voluntary for the rats). So, essentially, a lot of rats had to die so that cows could live.
Vegans are not exactly strangers to hand-wringing; a quick Google search the other day revealed these questions: “Is it ok to keep my dog vegan?” and “Can I eat oysters because they have no central nervous system?” So animal testing brings out the Vegan Police in force. PETA calls for the end of “speciesism” (rat-faced rats sacrificed for adorable cows).
Then there is the issue of nutrition: Impossible and Beyond Burgers do, in fact, give new meaning to the phrase “mystery meat.”
“The ingredients listed on the Impossible meat packaging seem to be made with complex processes typically used in chemical laboratories, not food kitchens,” says Alan Lewis, who monitors synthetic-biology issues for the grocery-and-dietary-supplement industry. “The patents that protect these processes are almost impossible to decode. Our bodies don’t know these synthetic-meat analogs, so each of us may react to them in surprising and not always positive ways.” The Impossible Whopper sold at Burger King is barely less unhealthy than the original Whopper, with 30 fewer calories (but still 630) and some savings in trans fat.
Even with all the infighting and purity tests, plant meats are going to continue to grow in popularity. The proof: Meat purveyors are scared. Tyson, the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, has just announced plans to enter the plant-based-food market. And meat lobbyists, frightened that the plant-based burgers are too good, are lobbying to change the nomenclature. The European Parliament just introduced a food-labeling regulation that would ban words like “sausage, steak and burger” for plant products, subbing instead the less than appetizing “veggie disc.”
But this is not the final meat/no meat brouhaha. If the idea is to eliminate animal suffering … ladies and gentlemen, I give you: lab meat. Actual meat, grown in a lab from cultured cells. Which raises the real probability that conscience-stricken carnivores will be able to eat any kind of meat, guilt-free. For me, this is personal. When they start using human cells, I’ll finally be able to find out if people really do taste like chicken.
Judith Newman is a New York–based writer and the author of To Siri with Love.