Recognizing limits on agricultural land and the unsustainable water and climate impacts of raising livestock for food, concerned scientists and consumers have sought alternatives to the meat-focused western diet that contributes up to half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
In the last decade or so, vegetarian and vegan diets have moved from the fringes, becoming increasingly mainstream. Though recent polls suggest that only 5-7% of Americans currently consider themselves vegetarian, many more report being open to eating mainly plant-based diets. As awareness of meat’s health and ecological impacts have risen, more omnivores have adopted meatless days, or even a mostly meatless diet. Makers of the latest wave of plant-based “meats” hope to convert still more health-seekers and environmentally-concerned folk to less meat-centric ways of eating.
Innovations in Meat Alternatives
Newcomers to the veggie-based “meat” market are taking on veterans Tofurkey and Gardenburger to appeal to consumers looking for something that can believably replace the experience of eating animal meat. Though some enjoy the taste of veggie burgers for themselves, carnivores expecting a hamburger experience from a mix of beans, grains, and spices are usually disappointed. The biggest new player in the veggie-meat game, Beyond Meat, sells a popular “Beast Burger” sufficiently like a real hamburger to draw a rapidly growing following. Their veggie-based “chicken” even fooled vaunted New York Times food critic Mark Bittman.
A spokesperson from Beyond Meat says that the “tremendous growth” in Beyond Meat’s sales signals an “appetite” for their products spurred by “growing interest in plant protein among omnivores.” Currently in 7500 stores, they soon debut at Walmart and by the end of the year anticipate distribution to 10,000 U.S. stores.
Beyond Meat’s founder, Ethan Brown, left his career in hydrogen fuel cells to develop Beyond Meat after learning that meat’s climate impact exceeded that of transportation. The machines Beyond Meat uses instead of livestock to reassemble grain and water into palatable protein have a significantly smaller footprint, requiring an average of one quarter the grain and one third the water of industrially-produced animal meat. Brown hopes his product helps to reduce global meat consumption by 25% in the next five years, taking a significant bite out of diet-based emissions.
Overly ambitious? Though sales numbers are not publicly available, indicators suggest Beyond Meat has quickly built an enthusiastic consumer base. Cole Jacobson, grocery team leader at one of the numerous Whole Foods in the Twin Cities, reports that Beyond Meat has been “owning this category” for the last year or so, as word of their products has spread. Jacobson commented that the consumers he serves have really appreciated Beyond Meat’s innovations, as companies like Boca and Quorn haven’t done anything new in awhile and have become “boring and stale.” Not exactly what you want for dinner.
Home Taste Test
At over $10 per pound, the Beast Burger is just a little more expensive than the local grassfed ground beef my town’s coop stocks (though a lot more expensive than most supermarket options). At a recent family tasting, three adults and two kids, representing three generations of omnivores, dug into several meat replacement products.
I’m sorry to report that the experiment was not a resounding success. Though my mother-in-law was impressed with the texture of the Beast Burger and said she would eat one again if someone served it to her, she also confessed that she would never choose it over a real hamburger unless she was feeling “extremely virtuous.” My 5-year-old, who has thoroughly enjoyed her few experiences with hamburgers, was thrilled when she heard she was having one for dinner. But the burger lacked the volume and grease of the real thing. My kids prefer burgers plain on a bun, and the thin, dry burger didn’t please their not terribly discriminating palates. (One upside: Their leftovers could go right in the compost pail.)
I rarely eat hamburgers, but when I do I pile them high with vegetables, so I stacked tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers on it, along with a big dollop of ketchup. But even with all those accompaniments, the fake-broiled taste of the burger came through. A couple big sprigs of cilantro helped mask the flavor, but I won’t be seeking these out again anytime soon.
We also tried Beyond Meat’s Chicken Poppers, the spices of which made them palatable enough, but again, no one enjoyed them particularly. And since whatever a ‘popper’ is does not form a regular part of our diets, the $5.49 we spent for a 9 oz. bag (three servings with 13g protein each) didn’t seem like a great deal.
Just for kicks, we also cooked up a couple Tofurkey sausages, which my 3-year-old claimed to enjoy, though she never agreed to a second bite. The rest of us were not enthused either. However, with 30g of protein per sausage (how did they do that?), if you can find a flavor you like, this one’s a relative protein bargain ($4.69 for a 14 oz. package containing four servings) and would probably work well mixed with other foods rather than standing alone.
A few days later, Seattle-based Field Roast brand sausages met with more favor. Like Tofurkey, these vegan links pack a serious protein punch, 26g per (four in a 13 oz. package for $4.99). I preferred the flavor of these to Tofurkey’s, and the texture was also pretty convincing, probably better still if I had a grill. They may take some getting used to if you want them to stand on their own, but they’d definitely work scrambled in with eggs.
I couldn’t get the Bittman-fooling Beyond Chicken or beef-like crumbles reported to be the most promising of Beyond Meat’s offerings, so another night I tried simmering some Quorn Chik’n Tenders ($4.99 for a 12 oz. bag containing four servings at 10g protein each, half that of Beyond Chicken) in a bottled korma sauce. The results were met with thumbs-up by those still willing to try fake meat experiments. I suspect “Chik’n” would also work well in a saucy stir-fry, if you’re not into tofu or tempeh.
Made from mushroom protein, Quorn also contains eggs, so it’s not an option for vegans or those with egg allergies. But when conventional chicken breast often costs as little as $2 per pound (roughly five 3 oz. servings with 20g protein apiece), Quorn might prove a hard sell to the general public.
The Beast Burger, with 23g of protein, 20% B12 and iron, and 25% B6, has the most impressive nutrient profile of the bunch, though it also has a hefty 16g of fat from canola, palm, and other oils. The fat content of the other products was also significant, though that would also be the case if you ate comparable meat-based versions. (Quorn and Beyond Chicken, like chicken breast, are quite low in fat.)
Industry experts believe that food scientists will continue to turn out more products that taste like real meat, helping more carnivores make the shift to plant-based eating. In addition to taste and texture, the fake meat that succeeds on a large scale will have to be cost competitive. Ethan Brown is hopeful that scaling up production will eventually allow Beyond Meat’s products to cost less than their animal-based counterparts, making it financially appealing for more people to forgo carbon-intensive meat.
What About Real Food?
Questions remain, however. When we reshape our diet for the good of the planet, turning to less processed food is an important step, reducing energy and resource use in production and packaging.
Many of us have become wary of the laboratory alchemy that turns not-quite-food products into reasonable facsimiles of food. If like me, you prefer a “real food” diet, many of these meat replacements born in the lab may not be for you. Also, most don’t use organic ingredients (Tofurkey has some). If you’re after protein, an organic three-egg omelet has nearly as much as a Beast Burger and costs far less, though eggs are not as high in B vitamins. But if you’re concerned about B12, real food and a supplement might make more sense, especially if you’re on a budget. You’d have to eat a lot of these burgers to get all your B12.
As for me, I’m sticking with my $2 per pound organic beans and grains, and pesticide-free produce and dairy from our terrific local farms. After a week of trying so many different kinds of ersatz meat, I found myself craving VERY real food. Like huge plates of plain, raw cucumbers and peppers from our CSA. Part of the issue may have been salt, as a plant-based single sausage or burger contains 20-25% of the RDA for sodium. Chicken replacements contain ten times as much salt as meat from an actual bird.
If you favor a real food diet, you have other options when you seek to reduce meat consumption. If burgers are a go-to in your household, consider trying some homemade black bean burgers. If beef or chicken is a typical ingredient in your stir-fry or chili, try skipping it or using tofu or tempeh instead. When you feature fresh, well-prepared vegetables, you probably won’t miss the meat.
One thing that has surely made reduced meat consumption more appealing is the explosion of websites featuring mouth-watering vegetarian and vegan recipes. It’s now so easy to find appealing vegetarian recipes that those raised on meat-centric diets should find it far less challenging than in generations past to learn new plant-focused cooking habits.
The upshot? If you’d like to kick that burger habit, give one of these more benign alternatives a whirl. Try some chicken replacement or fake meat crumbles next time you’re cooking up a stirfry or chili. But also look for ways to create meals that focus on vegetables and grains. The more carnivores who do, the better the outlook for the planet.