Meatless Meat: Oxymoron or the Future?

By Anna Hardisty, GLOBUS Correspondent

The start of the 2020 new year brought with it the launch of new fake meat products across multiple big name chains. Greggs’ steak bake, KFC’s vegan chicken burger, McDonald’s veggie happy meal, Subway’s meatless meatball marinara sub; despite predictable complaints from Piers Morgan that “A meatless steak is not a bloody steak,” meat alternatives are embedding themselves in more and more menus, and look as though they’re here to stay.

Piers’ frustration is not the only form of resistance to the new kid on the foodie block. ‘Vegan cheese’ and ‘soy milk’ are two of the many terms forbidden under new laws, which have banned non-animal products from being labelled using the same names as their animal counterparts in several western countries. It is unsurprising that the loudest supporters of these laws are the meat and dairy industries, who feel threatened by the disruption to the market. Whilst the EU has only applied such laws to dairy products, it is anticipated that the fake meat market is next on its list; ‘veggie discs’ and ‘Quorn tubes’ don’t have the same appeal as ‘burger’ or ‘sausage’, but they might be hitting the shelves soon. 

Patrick O. Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, which develops plant- based meat substitutes, strongly opposes such legislation. “Animals have just been the technology we have used up until now to produce meat, which is a food that is defined by its flavour profile, it’s sensory profile, its nutrition, utility,” he argues. “What consumers value about meat has nothing to do with how it’s made.” And he has the market to back him up. In 2019, Impossible Foods raised over $300 million in one of its funding rounds, and competitor Beyond Meat had the best first day for a US IPO of 2019; initially valuated at $3.8 billion, it soared to a market value of $11.7 billion by the year’s end. Both companies are hailed for their ability to accurately replicate the experience of eating a beef burger, minus the beef. 

Brown’s work is a response to the climate crisis; one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food, with 58% of them coming from animal products – despite only making up 18% of food calories consumed. Although some agricultural practices are worse for the environment than others, cutting out animal products from your diet is the biggest way to reduce your impact on the planet – not just in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but also water pollution, ocean acidification and land use too.

However, in a society where cuisine often revolves around meat, shifting consumer habits can prove to be a difficult task. As Brian Kateman, co-founder of The Reducitarian Foundation explains, “Most people are aware of the problems associated with how we produce meat… But most people don’t choose their food based on ethics and health, it’s primarily based on price, taste, convenience and how readily available it is. People worship meat, not just the taste but their memories associated with it.” 

This could go someway in explaining the success of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – people like the burger’s ability to trick the senses into believing the plant-based burger they’re eating is actually a real beef burger. But what makes meat taste like meat? The smell, the taste, the texture, the sizzle it makes when you flip it on the grill? According to Impossible Foods scientists, 95% of the answer to this question is heme.  

Heme is a molecule found in every living plant and animal, but is found in much larger quantities in animals. Its main function is to carry oxygen around to where it’s needed, but it also heavily contributes to the flavour and colour of meat. The heme used in the Impossible Burger is isolated from soybeans and originates from genetically engineered yeast which, with the addition of the soybean gene, creates the protein used in the burgers. But whilst the use of GMO yeast enables efficient harvesting of the key ingredient, it has put Impossible Foods in the line of fire from consumer groups against genetically modified or processed foods.

As meatless meat becomes mainstream, the backlash continues to increase from all directions – sometimes for potentially unfair reasons. Back in August 2019, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol stated that, unlike other chains such as Burger King or Subway, his company would not be looking to partner up with plant-based meat companies “because of the processing.” And Chipotle is not the only one. Critics who once heralded the entry of fake meat into the market have turned against it, the timing coincidentally coinciding with meatless meat becoming mainstream. Maybe it is not such a coincidence. Alex Trembath of The Breakthrough Institute observes “that when fake meat was the purview of food utopians and visionary chefs, thought leaders were enthusiastically in favour of it. But as soon as fake meat hit the plastic trays at Burger King, they were fretting about how over-processed it was.” While the makeup of the Impossible burger remained the same, the quantity available increased dramatically; the elitist synonymity of ‘highly processed’ and ‘mass produced’ with ‘lower class’ in the food world is potentially a driver of this turnaround reaction.  

The healthiness of the ‘meat’ is also a target. It can be easy to assume that a plant-based diet is always healthier, and therefore fake meat is too. But vegan diets are not necessarily better and, the same way you wouldn’t consider a Big Mac a superfood, most meatless burgers are no healthier than their traditional beef counterparts, with high calorie and sodium levels.

An issue arises when consumers are unaware of this distinction. NPD, a marketing researching firm, reports that 90% of Impossible Food’s customers are meat-eaters who choose to consume meat-substitutes as they believe they are healthier and better for the environment. 

But among this backlash, the environmental benefits of meatless meat have remained unscathed; they truly do emit less carbon dioxide and use fewer land and water resources. With growing public concern over the climate crisis and resource use, many innovative and creative minds are working to address the meat problem. It may not be long until your burger at GBK is the product of cultured meat grown from cells in the lab, or soya in your Impossible burger is replaced with protein from soil bacteria. However, until then, Impossible Food and Beyond Meat’s biggest worry is each other, and other rapidly emerging competition as Gardein, Boca and Vivera start to increase their market share.  

So how does fake meat compare? That decision is up to the consumer – you. Next time you’re in the queue at KFC, Sainsburys, the Cosy Club, or one of the many other outlets offering ‘fake meat’, try venturing out to the meat-free alternative. Reducing our traditional meat consumption is essential to the future of our planet – but it is up to us to decide how we achieve it. 

Header Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

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