Mimicking meat is becoming mainstream: a multi-billion dollar industry invading our kitchens and drive-throughs. These new meatless products are thought of as wholesome, vegan, and are marketed as nearly indistinguishable from real meat. Not so long ago, veggie burgers looked unattractively nutritious, full of beans, seeds, and nuts. Veggie burgers didn’t masquerade as something they weren’t.
Why, then, are consumers so quick today to embrace these hyper-realistic products that resemble the exact thing they’re trying to avoid?
My own allegiance to meat has wavered at times. For nearly my entire adolescence, I abstained from red meat. Consumed by concern about global warming and the then-worsening hole in the ozone layer, 11-year-old me discovered that gassy cows were releasing a worrisome amount of methane into the atmosphere. And, honestly, to be anti-beef because cows farted too much was exactly the sort of ridiculous ecological virtue I was eager to adopt. I naively believed that my decision to forgo eating beef could make a measurable impact on the planet’s health. That’s cute, but I still wore leather.
In my 20s, again motivated by my own eco-consciousness, I was an urban farmer. I grew heirloom varieties of vegetables without pesticides. I raised animals, many of them heritage breeds, without hormones. These included rabbits, an assortment of poultry, a pair of goats, and even one pig. They had names, and they wound up on the dinner table.
Like the other animals, the pig was cared for every day, talked to, doted on. She was a Gloucestershire Old Spot, a breed listed as critically endangered. Eventually, she grew and reached a size so large I started being afraid to feed her alone. I’m not that big, and she nearly outweighed me. It was time to let her go.
Slaughtering the pig turned an otherwise mundane morning in November into a communal gathering. I remember the day was sunny and it was solemn. Friends with previous experience in pig slaughter were solicited for their knowledge and skill, and they were happy to assist. I didn’t own a gun, but thankfully one of my friends did. The pig was peaceful, and then the shot rang. Killing her was considerate and quick. We all participated in the bloodletting, the singeing and scraping off of the hair, the gutting; we all bore responsibility for her death.
It was during this period of my life that meals became much more meaningful for me. With every animal dispatched, every crop harvested, I realized that our time on earth is temporary, and everything on it is a gift. I could plant seeds or raise animals from birth, care for them, feed them, and then later I would depend on them to nourish and sustain me. I eventually stopped farming, and while I’ve eaten beautiful, delicious things in the years since, I’ve never been able to recreate the profound gratitude I felt from those meals.
The artificial meat industry wants to redefine “meat” as nothing more than a proprietary mix of proteins, amino acids, flavors, and colorings, without acknowledging that meat should also contain emotion and respect. They’re creating replicas of animal protein by way of creative molecular composition. Companies are spending tremendous amounts of money, research, and energy innovating ways to synthesize the entire sensory experience of meat (taste, sound, sight, and smell), and to make it as realistic as possible. Millions of dollars are being invested in an effort to monetize our appetites.
Considering the chemistry involved in making them, are flesh substitutes even healthy? The risks to our health associated with eating meat are better attributed to the sheer quantity of meat we consume every day, rather than blaming meat to be a kind of carcinogen.
A “plant-based” burger sounds nutritious, but remember that Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meats are at their core ultra-processed junk foods.
There are 21 ingredients in an Impossible Burger and 18 in a Beyond Meat patty. These include things like methylcellulose, which aids in refrigeration and emulsification, but is also used as a laxative; mixed tocopherols, a preservative; and cultured dextrose, another preservative, but one that quickly spikes blood sugar levels.
These foods are less like a salad, and more like a Pringle.
Is eating virtual meat better for animals? The new wave of meatless products may pass as vegan, but they aren’t necessarily cruelty-free. Animals are routinely sacrificed in the pursuit of meat trickery. The scientists responsible for developing alternative proteins regularly rely on sampling cooked meat to assess flavors and compare textures. Impossible Burgers are also animal-tested. The company fed the key ingredient, leghemoglobin (or “heme”), to rats, subjecting them to quantities “vastly greater than any human would ever consume.”
But, OK, fine, I admit I’ve eaten these things. The first time was a couple of years ago. I was curious and used a night out with my vegan friend as an excuse to try an Impossible Burger. More recently, puzzled by consumers’ ferocious appetites for animal-free meats, I sampled both White Castle’s Impossible sliders and bought Beyond Meat patties to cook at home. Each time they’re saltier than meat, squishier than meat, and not at all like meat. I gave it a shot, but I’m not fooled. Have the leaders of plant-based meat companies even ever tasted a really great burger?
The meatless industry’s goal is to eliminate our reliance on food animals within the next several years, not just with plant-based models, but also by culturing meat from animal cells. Developed by technicians in laboratories, and disguised in detail to resemble meat, these foods will never succeed in mimicking the humbling intimacy from meals where the animal’s death is deeply felt. Salted and spiced meat imitations allow consumers to enjoy meat’s pleasures without having to contemplate the deeper stuff.
But with death, there’s accountability and significance. That’s something you can’t order from the drive-through.
Danielle Laprise is a freelance writer residing in St. Louis, Missouri. She has a degree in religious studies and has previously written about the ways food and agriculture intersect with spirituality. She is also a jerk and constantly takes photos of her food. Find her at daniellelaprise.com