Not only is veganism on the rise, but so are all kinds of different meat substitutes. Many companies seem to be doing a pretty good job at recreating meat, using only plants. Both vegans and meat-eaters are impressed with the taste; surprised, even freaked out, that the ‘beef’ burger they’re eating isn’t actually beef. But the rise of vegan meat may not just be a passing fad, but a culinary innovation that could address many of the sustainability issues associated with animal agriculture.
Image credit: Impossible Foods
Recreating the taste of meat
The sceptics out there may doubt that vegan meat could ever taste like the real thing. I mean, how can you combine plants together so that it feels, looks and tastes like animal flesh? Well, some companies claim to be doing exactly that.
First, there’s the Impossible Burger. The people at Impossible Foods spent five years studying what makes a beef burger unique – the sights, sounds, aromas, textures and flavours – and used solely plant-based ingredients to recreate everything. The burger is made from wheat, coconut oil and potatoes. But what makes it different from other vegan meat is the ingredient heme (1). It’s a building block of life, found in plants, but abundant in meat.
Impossible Foods discovered that it’s heme that makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed and taste ‘meaty’. So are meat-eaters really convinced it tastes the same? Apparently when given the burger without being told it’s plant-based, carnivores think it is real meat (2). Other meat eaters couldn’t really tell the difference, and said they would choose the Impossible Burger over an actual burger because it’s more eco-friendly (3).
No cows are involved in the process of making the Impossible Burger. Compared to rearing cattle for beef, this example of vegan meat uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s also 100% free of hormones, antibiotics and artificial ingredients. Since it doesn’t rely on intensive animal farming, this automatically means that there is no risk of zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread from animals to people – e.g. swine flu and avian flu).
Another contender is the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat. Instead of heme, beets are used to make the burger red and ‘bleed’. The company points out that meat’s core ingredients – amino acids, lipids, trace elements, carbs and minerals – don’t exclusively belong to animals, but plants as well. The people at Beyond Meat have been working for seven years to figure out how to create a beef patty using only plant ingredients.
The Beyond Burger is also pretty nutrient-dense. One quarter pound patty contains 32% of your recommended daily protein intake (and more protein than a quarter pound beef patty), 25% of your daily iron intake, and 90% your daily Vitamin C intake!
But what about other vegan meat? Is vegan chicken getting the same kind of positive reviews? Somewhere like Veggie Grill in the US could be the answer to vegan fast food. Meat-eaters can also barely tell the difference between vegan chicken and actual chicken (4). And in the UK, the world’s very first vegan chicken shop opened in London. I went for myself and thought it tasted as close as you can get – similar to a burger from KFC.
More improvements, cheaper prices
More and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon of vegan meat, because it’s becoming increasingly popular. Massive queues formed for the Momofuku Nishi restaurant (5) in New York City (which serves the Impossible Burger), as well as Temple of Hackney in London (which serves vegan fried chicken; 6).
It is likely that further improvements will be made to vegan meat, so that eventually there will be no noticeable difference at all between the substitute and the real thing. Many people (both vegans and meat-eaters) already think some vegan meat is identical to real meat, but others feel there are small, recognisable differences in texture, taste and appearance. However, I don’t think the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger will be the best to come. In order to fill the gap in the market, more innovations will be made. People will see that no sacrifices have to be made in terms of taste by choosing vegan meat over actual meat. But the benefits (to animals, human health and the environment) are persuasive.
The only thing that will put people off vegan meat is the cost. It’s not hugely expensive ($5.99 for two Beyond Burger patties) – but it’s still far more expensive than the cheapest beef patties. On the other hand, if you factored in the health costs of cheap, processed meat, it might not seem like such a bargain after all. More innovation and higher demand may bring down costs. So would subsidising plant crops (as currently the meat, dairy and egg industries in the US receive huge subsidies from the government). If vegan meat can become affordable, then there really won’t be any good reason to turn it down.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.