All hail the Beyond Burger. A plant-based patty designed to imitate a conventional meat burger in taste, texture, and appearance. It’s now found in Tescos across the UK, has propelled its parent company Beyond Meat to a 500-million-dollar brand within a few years, and has established an audience for follow-up imitations of bacon and steak.
There seems to be no stopping the fake meat ‘revolution’. And why should there be? Some say Beyond Burger and its competition are healthier than what they look to supplant. Others claim they’re more environmentally friendly. We know meat has its issues, but is fake meat the answer we’ve been waiting for? Hugh Thomas fills us in.
Is fake meat the answer we’ve been waiting for?
Let’s get one thing straight: there is an unsustainable demand for meat. We eat too much of it. An over-reliance on livestock cultivation has created a hotbed for factory farms, where meat quality, animal treatment, and the environment aren’t of prime interest. It’s no surprise that appetites for meat are decreasing, with vegan diets on the rise, and one in five adults now claiming to eliminate or reduce their meat intake. Products like Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, and Tofurkey, are helping them do that.
Their success is most likely down to how they taste. ‘The best veggie burger I’ve ever had,’ a BBC Good Food writer writes on the Impossible Burger. ‘Halo have managed to recreate the nostalgic fast food burger experience that is oh so familiar from my own childhood,’ one reviewer writes of vegan joint Halo Burger. ‘No vegan today can be bothered to compromise on taste, and here, you don’t have to,’ says Vice on Gregg’s famous sausage-but-not-sausage roll.
Apparently, you don’t have to be a meat eater to appreciate non-meat, nor a vegan to feel relief that rubbery, bland, beige non-meat products are on the way out.
Fake meat: the environmental solution we’ve been waiting for?
That a burger containing no meat tastes exactly the same as one that does, and helps curtail an environmental crisis, can only be a good thing right? The idea that you can absolve all supposed guilt behind eating meat by simply making one purchasing decision rather than the other – and not suffer any repercussions on flavour – is music to the ears of many. But is that completely true?
Take sustainability, for instance. It’s claimed Beyond Meat’s products are way kinder to the environment than their meat-based counterparts. Livestock farming, when done right, however, can be a major part of a natural holistic system where animals rely on plants as much as plants rely on them, helping sequester carbon emissions in the process. This is one step towards addressing the urgent need for biodiversity within agriculture if we want a global sustainable food supply.
Regenerative farming is showing that livestock is a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. Read more.
Even vegetarian farmers are willingly taking on livestock to help regenerate their crops, completing the carbon cycle. It’s possible that the answer to climate change isn’t going to pop out of a laboratory.
Who do you trust with your food?
With fake meat we’re not talking about your mum, or a local farmer, or even a trained chef behind what you eat. It’s scientists in a lab. This is an industry where products’ ingredients, more often called ‘flavour delivery systems’, often number into their dozens, and in this case include textured wheat protein, xanthan gum, and Methylcellulose.
It hardly resembles anything used to stimulate an appetite for dinner. A good thing they never claimed it to be all-natural.
Arguably more significant is not so much the ingredients as the processes they’re subjected to. Which, due to being incredibly complicated, manufacturers aren’t terribly forthcoming about. Given the comparative cost of raw materials (soy protein isolate can be up to a third cheaper than ground beef), imitation meat should be considerably cheaper. But owing to the processing involved, isn’t. A Beyond Burger, for example, is £11.50 in an Honest restaurant. Honest’s signature beef burger – which derives from native breeds roaming free on the Scottish Highlands, no less – costs the same.
Mindful meat or none at all
As consumers, we’re looking for a product we identify with. Beyond Meat are trying to position themselves as a company whose meat-free products people want to eat ‘three times a day’. Impossible Burger wants to ‘completely replace animals in the global food system’. Perhaps, one day, they will. The question, though, should hinge on whether they should.
While at least we share common ground on a few things; a palate for flavoursome food, mitigating our collective impact on the environment, and reducing the need for intensively farmed animals, there’s two sides to this fence. Mindful meat or none at all. On which side are you?
What is a sustainable diet? And is eating no meat doing more harm than good? Read on.