Thu, Nov-07-19, 01:42
As carnivores, should we embrace vegan meat?
Don't decry vegan meat just because it comes from a factory
My first experience with fake food was in the mid-1980s, just after I’d moved out of home. For the first time in my life I had to do my own shopping. I remember picking up some crab sticks from the shop shelves and thinking, not unreasonably, that crab sticks would be made from crab meat. I popped them into my basket as a healthy choice. Well done me.
But crab sticks, I later found out, are not made from crabs. They are made from fish that has been minced and then washed to remove any fish odour, then combined with oil, starch or egg white, sometimes MSG, to provide texture and extend shelf life. All edible foodstuffs – but not what I expected when I bought crab sticks. I never ate them again.
I might have been equally disappointed had I chosen chicken nuggets. Some of the lowest quality ones come from chicken that has been spun at great speed to separate the last traces of flesh from the carcass. Other food products are made from extruded meat, otherwise known as mechanically recovered meat (MRM), in which the carcass is minced and pulped to create something that looks like pate, allowing it to be fashioned into shapes. OK, these products are technically derived from chicken, but as with the crab sticks they’re probably not what you had in mind when you picked them up in the supermarket.
The latest ‘fake’ food is also made from edible foodstuffs, but this time fashioned into a burger – and not just any burger either. This burger helps to combat climate change.
So-called ‘vegan meat’ is a breakout trend in the food industry, with the meat-free market now worth £474.5m a year in the UK, according to The Grocer magazine. You’ve probably heard of the plant-based Impossible Burger, which is available in select Burger Kings around the world. The manufacturer, Impossible Foods, has data that suggests people can’t tell the difference between their product and a beef patty.
There’s an obvious environmental effect here, with the products offering to reduce our meat consumption – but is there also a health one? This week, Sheila Dillon voiced concern on Radio 4’s The Food Programme that vegan ‘junk food’ could become a public health issue, with manufacturers using cheap ingredients to sell highly processed foods.
So, should we be just as wary of vegan meat as crab sticks?
The first time I encountered factory-produced fake meat was this time last year, in a restaurant in New York. My lunch date wanted to try the new meat-free burger, just to see what it was like. I didn’t join her for no other reason that the burger contained wheat protein and thus wasn’t suitable for coeliacs like me. When it arrived, we examined it as though it were from another world, expecting it to look strange, but it looked like, well, a burger.
My companion started to eat the specimen. She reported that it was fine, albeit a bit “chewy and bouncy”. And then a drizzle of red juice trickled down her chin – beetroot juice, mimicking the colour of blood. She dropped the burger immediately, saying that was “gross”. She wanted something “natural, not with fake blood in it”.
Herein lies the great irony of vegan meat: it’s not really for vegans at all. As Impossible Foods’ founder Pat Brown has said, “The only consumer we care about is the hardcore meat lover.”
When I ask clients in my nutrition practice if they would eat a plant-based burger, most of the vegans and vegetarians screw up their faces; while the carnivores say they might try one. It’s a tiny sample group, but my working theory is that vegetarians are used to a diet that largely excludes processed food, whereas meat eaters are much more accustomed to it.
Vegan meat is undeniably processed. An Impossible Burger is made mostly from water and wheat protein, along with coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavours, various gums and salt. Nutritionally speaking, however, the landscape is not too shoddy: vegan meat offers the same amount of protein as a good quality beef burger, and while fat levels are comparable (ie high), the fake meats are fortified with nutrients such as iron, B2, B6 and B12.
Add in the environmental aspect – Beyond Meat say that a quarter pound of their product uses “90pc less greenhouse gas emissions and requires 46pc less energy than a quarter pound of U.S. beef” – and you can appreciate the appeal, especially to meat eaters who want to do their bit for the environment.
And really that’s the point. Whilst these fake foods are suitable for vegetarians and vegans, it’s the meat eaters that are the real target market – and for them, vegan meat may well present a slightly healthier alternative to the cheap processed meat that’s available. What’s more, they aren’t going to be put off by a little oozing beetroot juice, factory made or otherwise.