The Climb of Meatless Meat is Reflected in the Downfall of Flavor, Taste, Nutrition and Choice
The burgers are semi-concealed by faux-rustic packaging that proudly proclaims the manufacturers name in an equally faux-rustic type face.
The Meatless Farm Company is very keen to state what the burgers are not, but not so keen to say what they actually are. To find out what I was actually going to be eating, I had to flip over the pack and pull on my reading glasses to decipher the incredibly small text.
Pea protein, mostly. That’s good. I like peas. Although, I’m not too sure about the list of 18 other ingredients.
Why Does Artificial Meat Even Exist?
I like vegetables, but I also like meat. There’s nothing better than a barely seared rib eye steak slathered with mustard (English, not American), sitting atop a bed of fried onions and mushrooms and mounted firmly on a grilled Ciabatta.
I love a leg of lamb just as much as fried chicken. I make both burgers and sausages from scratch using one of the very many attachments on my Kenwood Chef. Over the last year or so, I have happily tucked into horse, zebra, ostrich, alligators, sharks, octopus and jellyfish. Anything with a heartbeat is a candidate for my chopping board.
Do I think about the ethical considerations of slicing into what was once a living, breathing being that was capable of thought and pleasure as well as complex emotions such as joy, fear, empathy and pain?
Sure I do.
Do I consider the last terrifying trip to the abattoir, the smells of blood, shit, fear and piss as the animal (over which I am now salivating) is wrestled into position before the captive bolt gun?
Of course. I’d have to be an unthinking monster for these intrusive thoughts not to occasionally bubble their way to the front of my brain.
But then I manage to cobble together some sort of half-arsed justification. I appreciate my dinner because I am an excellent cook. I pour another glass of red wine and relax, sated into the evening.
For some people that isn’t an option.
Maybe the thought of suffering animals prevents them from enjoying nature’s carnivorous bounty. Perhaps it’s the thought of how much land and resources is given over to the raising of said animals.
It could be that they’re fashionably flexitarian. Or just poor. Four percent of all Americans count themselves as vegetarians. In India, that figure rises to 31 percent. Shocking.
Whatever the reasons for eschewing chewing, most people agree that meat tastes good. If you can’t have it, whether for reasons of conscience or because of more basic financial limitations, the chances are that you want and need something that approximates the experience as closely as possible.
But you’re wrong, and you’re ruining food for everyone else.
Say Hello to The Future of Food
In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, the abandoned children of a recently executed skull-gun toting cyberpunk lowlife turn on a tap in their apartment, and food comes out. It’s a basic foodstuff to keep the plebs alive, and it can be flavored to any taste.
It is a fundamental premise that, even in the grittiest of cyberpunk futures, there’s always a way of keeping poor people alive and docile. Preventing starvation effectively wards off riots, bloodshed and people shouting ‘Eat the Rich‘ as more than just a tongue-in-cheek, anarchist catchphrase.
Flavored protein paste is the answer.
Just because it isn’t oozing from a tap situated conveniently above your frying pan right now, doesn’t mean this artificial meat isn’t the future of food. It’s a cyberpunk version of Ancient Rome’s grain dole.
The Meatless Farm Company isn’t the first to try and transform unspecified plant-based mush into an acceptable alternative to actual food. But, it’s one of a small handful to make a successful leap onto the shelves of supermarkets.
Burger King famously tricked hungry St. Louis patrons when diners ordering the chain’s trademark Whopper were given plant-based versions instead. The jury is still out on whether their so-called ‘Impossible Burger’ actually delivered on its promise of “flame-grilled, juicy craveability.” We’d guess that it didn’t.
Carl’s Jr. offers the Beyond Burger. As with my recent purchase, it doesn’t make clear on the menu what it actually is, instead opting for a jaunty flag poking from the top which states “Beyond Meat” as if the diners at Carls Jr. don’t particularly care what it is that they’re putting into their bodies.
No one is claiming that plant-based meat alternatives are particularly beneficial to your health. The Impossible Slider you can buy at White Castle packs more calories than a normal slider. That’s not even taking into account the insanely long list of ingredients and process the unnamed plants go through to give a poor approximation of the texture and taste of meat.
At least you know what’s in a steak. It’s made of dead cow. Will eating excessive amounts of it eventually cause you health problems? Probably.
That’s not to say that veggie alternatives won’t be necessary or even desirable at some point in the near future. There are a ton of problems associated with rearing animals for food. Cattle ranching is responsible for almost 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and there have been countless epidemics caused as diseases endemic to different animal species make the jump to humans by way of the fork.
Who can forget the terrifying 1993 plague of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy related variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?Four years after chowing down on a seemingly ordinary burger, sufferers found their brains being shredded by a rogue swarm of self-replicating protein fragments.
Even the current Coronavirus crisis can be traced back to someone on the far side of the world munching on either a bat or on a pangolin which had, itself, eaten a bat.
I get that eventually, humanity may need to reduce its meat intake for the good of the planet and the health of the human species. Which is why I decided to get ahead of the game by introducing a slab of fake meat to my second best frying pan.
Faux Meat is Delicious Not-So-Goodness
So how was it, you ask? It was okay.
Actually, it was better than OK. The burger tasted good, although it didn’t taste like a burger, or meat or anything else I’d experienced.
If I’d ordered an assortment of dishes from a restaurant in a country where I didn’t speak the language and this ‘burger’ had arrived as a mystery dish, I would have liked it. But it’s not a burger.
Eating it while knowing that it was masquerading as something else entirely ruined the experience for me. It felt dirty. It felt like I was betraying my ancestors and myself by supporting the myth that fat-laden, shaped protein paste patties are an acceptable alternative to anything at all.
Sweetcorn burgers are nice, and I have recipes to share if anyone is interested. I can go for extended periods without consuming any animal flesh at all. Mushroom Risotto? Bean chili? All good.
How long before the green writing just fades into the background?
Names are descriptive, words have power, and proper nouns tell you what things are. Advertising an alligator as a reptile-based dog and welding a set of fluffy ears onto its skull does not, in any way, make it a dog.
Altering the language used to name a thing cannot make it something else. To think otherwise is to invite confusion and underhand sales tactics.
I’m also terrified that in order to accommodate all of the people with special dietary requirements, plant-based meats will become the default. If you can’t be bothered finding out whether your guests are vegetarians or have religious restrictions on what they can eat, simply serve up some unspecified plant-based edible matter. Problem solved.
It’s a slippery slope, and while I don’t yet know how, you can mark my words.
Normalizing bullshit as burgers is going to get us all killed.
How Do You Regulate Artificial Meat?
To some readers, the concept of a federal government looking out for your interests may be an alien one. But the European Union is pretty hot on protecting its citizens from misinformation and underhand marketing techniques. You can make fizzy white wine from Champagne variety grapes using centuries-old techniques, but unless those grapes are grown in the Champagne region of France, you have to call it something else.
Regulators are finally turning their attention to the plant-based sausages and burgers which are slowly expanding into the meat aisles of supermarkets across the block.
Despite heavy lobbying by the plant-based food industry, two amendments to the Common Agricultural Policy were tabled which would have ensured that, “the meat-related terms and names that are currently used for meat and meat cuts shall be reserved exclusively for edible parts of the animals,” and that names such as“steak,” “sausage,” “escalope,” “burger” and “hamburger” should be “reserved exclusively for products containing meat”.
The amendments made it as far as the European Parliament (kind of a big deal) before being rejected in October 2020.
Less than a month later, the McDonalds restaurant chain announced Ronald would be tossing his top hat into the plant-based ring with the McPlant range of imitation meat.
It “is crafted exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s,” and could also be used in chicken substitutes and other menu items at some point in the future.
I’d put in a joke about the Hamburglar if it weren’t so sad.
We’re doomed to a future where buying a rack of juicy lamb chops means carefully inspecting the package and ingredients list for the kind of phrasing which would indicate whether it’s grass-reared lamb or a shaped imitation made of grass. Is it a corn-fed chicken or a chicken made of corn? It’s going to take some detective work to find out.
The future of food is depressing.