Have you noticed the veganization happening all over the US and Canada? The Junk Food Vegan is seizing the day lately, thanks to a few approaching-ubiquitous plant-based meat companies, Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods, specializing in their own versions of seriously convincing vegan burgers. Though both companies were founded several years ago, their popularity and success have been booming in the last couple of years, and it appears like they won’t be slowing down any time soon.
As a Canadian resident, my only experience with Impossible Foods and their Impossible Burger is via social media, vegan gossip, and my never-ending burger daydreams… *sigh* Impossible Foods is currently only available in the States, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore. Beyond Meat, however, is quickly expanding into Canada from the US, and I’m living for it. So, let’s take a moment to talk about this current phenomenon.
It seems we’re living through a vibrant era of transition in regards to veganism. Decades ago, vegans had to basically “go it alone”; there were very few plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy available for purchase, and very little cultural knowledge about the diet/lifestyle. Veganism was more closely linked to a healthy lifestyle than it is today, because processed vegan/ plant-based foods simply didn’t exist. Increasingly, we are seeing more mass produced substitutes (at least in Canada and the USA) and a related change in vegan lifestyles. The spread of vegan alternatives is so rapid, that it’s been apparent even during my weekly grocery trips — it seems each week there is a new plant-based alternative product on the shelf. It’s alarming and thrilling… but… raises some questions.
- Are these plant-based meat alternatives aligned with vegan ethics?
- What are the impacts of bringing vegan junk food to the mainstream?
Okay, okay, but first… What do they taste like? As I said earlier, unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of tasting the Impossible Burger, but everything I have heard and read tells me it is the most convincing plant-based meat substitute. Tempted as I am to take a road trip to the US simply to get my mouth on this burger, I do not have the means (or the patience) to do so. Please, share your opinions with me if you have them.
My first experience with Beyond Meat was back in April 2018, when the Beyond Burger came to A&W. I was blown away! It tasted just like a meat A&W burger, to me, at least… My omnivore husband was not as impressed, but he still jumped on board, owning up to the fact that the burgers had their own magical appeal and deliciousness.
This past weekend was spent away with friends and I got to introduce them to Beyond Meat burgers in the form of my homemade, vegan Crunch Wrap Supremes. Apparently, even crumbled up and hella seasoned with chilli, onion, and cumin, they still taste like burgers and not quite like ground beef. I’m okay with that, though. To be honest, they taste like what I remember beef to taste like, but more interesting. So, they are not indecipherable to the omnivore, but are a satisfying alternative.
The issue of flavour takes us to the first important question — are they aligned with vegan ethics?
How is is that these plant-based companies are able to produce convincing meat substitutes without harming animals? For both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the process started with science and mimicry. Each company isolates a plant protein (Beyond Meat uses pea and Impossible Foods soy) and mixes with fats (mostly coconut oil) and seasoning, processing through extrusion to mimic meat structures. The differences are minimal, except for the key difference of Impossible Foods adding heme, plant blood, to the process. (To learn more about plant blood, check out their science.)
The “meats” mimic the composition and structure of real meat and therefore are more convincing than, say, a thick loaf of dry seitan sliced up and spiced… yum. They are, essentially, strings of plant protein coated in fat, seasoned with salt and miscellany in the shape of burgers. Nutrition-wise, they are quite comparable to their meat originators — minus the carcinogens — full of protein, fat, sodium. Simply put: they’re junk food.
Of course, veganism has broadened past earlier definitions of healthy, clean eating as the capitalist market took hold. The Junk Food Vegan is a valid identity and does not represent a threat to the movement. However, can the same be said of mass-produced plant-based burgers extending far into the market?
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are careful to use words “plant-based” rather than vegan; it’s more precise and clearer, but also maybe a bit of a disclaimer. To claim their products as “vegan,” involving no harm to animals, might set them up for accountability beyond their intended scope (to say nothing of the fact that all the fast food restaurant burgers are grilled on meat-contaminated grills and topped with dairy sauces and cheese). It may be a semantic argument on the surface, but I think it is a helpful cue to think about these plant-based products in an animal-agriculture-is-the-norm world.
Our fast food industry is based on animal exploitation, pumping out burgers with cheese, popcorn chicken in buttermilk coating, piping hot cheese pizza… as fast as possible and as cheaply as possible. We save, and animals pay the cost. There is no room/time for thought to ethical living conditions and respectful slaughter for the animals consumed (some would argue this isn’t even possible). This is the nature of the industry. Is it ethical to join this industry with plant-based alternatives?
No and yes.
For many vegans, there is no grey area, but I find that untenable. Veganism is still regarded as extremism by the majority of many populations. As such, it remains unrelatable, unapproachable, unattainable for several majorities. By working from within the animal cruelty systems, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods make veganism more attainable and familiar. Their very presence as an easy and delicious alternative to a meat burger makes it possible for the choice to abstain from meat-eating, for a moment. This cannot be understated. That is a HUGE development. However, at the same time, participating in the fast food industry fuels the problem that leads to mass animal exploitation and slaughter. We remain unthoughtful about our food choices and the systems that support them.
The very foundation of veganism is to be more thoughtful and ethical about your food and consumer choices; it is antithetical to the fast food industry… and yet, the gains are undeniable. Like most considerations in life, there is considerable grey area here, but I’m pretty jazzed to be able to eat at A&W again (with some modification requests).