Animal activist groups are making obvious headway convincing meat eaters to put down the steak, according to a GlobalData analysis that estimates as many as 6 percent of U.S. consumers currently consider themselves vegans.
But while proponents of a plant-based diet woo consumers with the heady promise that going meat-free will stop global warming, kick-start their health and bring them closer to nature, fully 8 in 10 vegans eventually become former vegans. After my first (and hopefully, last) experience with the industry’s latest fake meat burger, I know why.
I tried the Beyond Burger, a new fake meat that bills itself as “the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks, and tastes like a fresh beef burger.” Piled high with toppings, it looked wholly promising. By appearances alone, you could almost be convinced that the lab-grown patty came from a cow raised on the same farm as the tomatoes and lettuce piled on top of it.
But that’s where the similarities end.
The patty was virtually tasteless — and I use that adjective liberally. Today’s virtual reality video games offer a more convincing version of reality than this burger patty. It’s no coincidence why coverage of the Beyond Burger and its principle competitor, the Impossible Burger, focus on how meatlike the burgers “look.” A major selling point of both burgers are their ability to “bleed” beet juice and ooze (vegetable-based) fat while they grill. But the flavor? It’s less convincing than a knockoff handbag.
All this fussing over optics gets at a pivotal point: Americans are being misled about the benefits of imitation meat. Lackluster flavor is just the tip of the iceberg.
What the reports didn’t talk about was where the patties come from. Beyond Burgers are the vegan equivalent of pink slime, liquified and defatted, then reconstituted with the fats of other vegetables. These aren’t healthy fats either. “Refined” coconut oil is first deodorized and bleached, leaving the final product robbed of its initial nutrients, and ensuring that the end product is less “tropical treat” and more “grandma’s over-steamed peas.”
For a movement that’s hyperconcerned with being “all natural,” meatless products often contain more additives than actual vegetables. Tofurky’s take on ground beef contains 14 ingredients, including “autolyzed yeast extract,” caramel coloring, and “natural vegetarian flavor” (though I’m not sure anyone wants to experience what a vegetarian tastes like). Morningstar’s Chick’n Nuggets contain a whopping 58 ingredients, including modified corn starch, corn oil, and disodium guanylate, an MSG substitute.
Any one of these ingredients is enough to rally the green food armies, yet their presence is conveniently overlooked when it comes to fake meat. As a comparison, Ballpark beef patties contain two major ingredients: beef, and water, and less than 2 percent of seasonings, sugar, and yeast. Real beef burgers don’t need an excess of additives, emulsifiers or thickening agents for consumers to stomach them.
And then we have the “plant-based” proteins that give fake meat its signature rubbery texture. Fake meat companies happily allow their customers to assume these benevolent-sounding ingredients are no more than healthy veggies ground down to their constituent proteins. In truth, vegetable proteins are highly processed, stripped of nutrients, and far removed from the “natural” food they’re made out to be.
For legumes like peas and soybeans, extracting protein means processing the seeds or beans at high temperatures, which strips them of most of their nutritional content. One method commonly used to produce soy protein isolates, concentrates, and defatted protein flours involves bathing the beans in hexane, a byproduct of gasoline, in order to separate out the oils. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control classifies hexane as a neurotoxin, and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a hazardous air pollutant. Unlike the European Union, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t established a maximum allowable amount of hexane residue in food products, except in spices and hops. As such, your brownie sundae might be a healthier option than the veggie burger you ate before it.
If the fake meat industry can’t even convince vegans to stomach their counterfeit burgers, it certainly has a long way to go before any self-respecting meat eater swaps their beef for lab-processed alternatives. It seems that without attacking the meat industry as a whole, meatless dieters can’t stand on their own two feet (I hear a lack of protein and essential amino acids can do that).
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.