Who remembers the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa meets teen activist Jesse Grass, instantly falling in love both with him and his environmentalist beliefs? In one scene, Jesse, sitting in lotus position, describes himself as a “level 5 vegan” explaining that he won’t eat anything that casts a shadow. Lol.
It’s been 20 years since that episode first aired, yet attitudes towards veganism and vegetarians have only recently began to shift from the tree-hugging, barefoot, bohemian outcasts portrayed in The Simpsons. The joke “how do you know if someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you” is still banded across social media and meat-eaters still defend their dietary preferences with the ferocity of full on war.
However, the past few years have seen a stratospheric rise in the number of vegans and vegetarians with a 2016 study finding that 3.5 million people in the UK identify as vegan. According to The Vegan Society, meat substitute sales grew by 451% in the European market in the four years to February 2018 and retailers are cashing in on the rush. Sainsbury’s saw a 24% increase in customers searching for vegan products online and a 65% increase in sales of plant-based products year-on-year, and Ocado enjoyed a whopping 1,678% increase in sales within its ‘vegan’ category between 2015 and 2016. But perhaps one of the most significant, and surprising, findings was that 92% of plant-based meals consumed in the UK in 2018 were eaten by non-vegans.
The appeal of vegan food to meat-eating consumers is something that’s only recently been recognised and has already birthed the rise of so-called “meatless meats”, i.e. meat-like but meat-free foods targeted at the meat eating public. Admittedly, it’s a little confusing, but essentially the key takeaway is that there is a new wave of vegan food that is targeted to the general population, not just the niche subset of society mocked in The Simpsons all those years ago. These foods are meant for the blood-loving carnivores who love nothing more than a blue steak or a Sunday roast. Take Impossible Foods, whose founding principle was to create something that retained the flavour, texture and sizzle of meat, but that was also better for people and the planet.
Impossible Foods was so committed to the cause that they even managed to make their burger “bleed” with a little help from hero ingredient Heme, a plant-based molecule made through fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Since its launch in 2016, the Impossible Burger has become the number one sold item in grocery stores across the East and West coasts of America and is available in 15,000 restaurants across in the United States, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore. The majority of their customers? Omnivores – 95% of them, in fact.
Another meatless manufacture making waves is Beyond Meat, whose mission it is to “create the future of protein” to address global issues associated with livestock production. The company has a selection of meat-replacement products, including burgers, sausages and mince, all of which are free-from soy, gluten and GMOs, yet full of meaty flavour, or as Beyond Meat Founder and CEO Ethan Brown says, “delivers a consumer experience indistinguishable from its animal protein equivalent.” Since its launch three years ago, Beyond Meat has sold over 13 million meat-free patties and has partnered with retailers in over 50 countries across the world.
Of course, the meatless meat movement is not without its critics, who claim that the products are highly processed and represent “fake” foods. This is a valid point – in order to get plants to look, feel and taste like meat, you’ve got to do all sorts to them. You’ve got to preserve them, enhance them, grind them, add nutrients among a number of other processes. But this doesn’t mean that the end result is in any way bad or harmful. Most foods that we eat everyday, and even many foods that are widely classed as healthy, are highly processed. Yogurt for instance. Or a boiled potato. In fact, the term ‘processing’ can be as simple as freezing, baking or drying a food during preparation.
Then there’s GMOs. While Beyond Meat does not contain any, their competitor Impossible Foods does. Again, genetically modified foods aren’t bad by definition and there has been no decisive evidence that GMOs are harmful to health. Many genetically modified foods are actually beneficial – some have a higher content of vital nutrients, and some require fewer pesticides.
While the fact that meatless meats are processed, and some contain genetically modified ingredients, doesn’t make them unhealthy, it also doesn’t make them healthy. They have a high level of protein, and far less cholesterol than meat, they still contain some saturated fats and sodium. In other words, just because it’s plant based, doesn’t mean you’re eating a salad.
But at a time when many consider the planet to be in a state of emergency, and the rearing of livestock a huge contributor to the climate crisis, are meatless meats really the enemy? In the words of Dr Patrick O Brown, Impossible Foods’ CEO, chairman and founder, “The use of animals to produce food for human consumption has long been taken for granted as an indispensable part of the global food system. Yet global demand for the foods that have, until now, been produced using animals continues to surge – and their catastrophic impact on climate, water resources, biodiversity and ecosystem integrity keeps skyrocketing. Awareness isn’t enough; we need urgent action.” And if that action takes the form of a delicious burger, all the better.