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Will Changing Definitions Of Meat Affect How We Think About Our Values?

On the left, a conventional beef burger. On the right, "The Impossible Burger," a plant-based burger containing wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein among. (Nati Harnik/AP)
On the left, a conventional beef burger. On the right, "The Impossible Burger," a plant-based burger containing wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein among. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Meatless Monday. “Vegetable-forward” restaurants. Plant-based diets. Foregoing meat is more mainstream than ever before, and at the center of this movement is a new wave of plant-based meat products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.

At dozens of restaurants in the Boston area, diners can now order a variety of dishes, from meatballs to medium-rare hamburgers, that are vegetarian but still have the look, taste and juicy texture of real meat. And don’t forget about lab-grown meat, also referred to as “cultured meat” or “clean meat.” It hasn’t hit grocery store shelves yet, but a handful of startups are busily working toward that goal.

Diet and identity are closely linked — we are what we eat. For vegetarians or vegans, not eating meat or meat products can be “a public declaration of one’s identity, morals, and lifestyle … it is a philosophy and ethic.” For omnivores, consuming meat can play a central role in important social and family traditions, like summer barbecues or Thanksgiving dinners. In these settings, meat alternatives are allowable but not adequate substitutes; Tofurky, it seems, can’t carry the same sentimental, symbolic value as a whole roasted bird. Meals seem incomplete without meat, and we feel incomplete as a result.

Altering our diets can seem like changing who we are as people. So is changing meat going to affect the way we think about ourselves?

Altering our diets can seem like changing who we are as people. So is changing meat going to affect the way we think about ourselves? It definitely makes things more complicated. Are vegetarians still vegetarians if they eat in-vitro meat? Are meat-eaters still meat-eaters if they eat Impossible Burgers instead of the real thing? And is the adoption of this new wave of meat alternatives really the best choice for health, animal welfare and environmental sustainability? Thoughtful eaters can use this opportunity to re-examine the relationship between their values and their dietary choices.

The meat alternative industry, it seems, prefers that we not think too much. Bruce Friedrich, champion of meat alternatives and founder of the Good Food Institute, turned to the business of meatless meat after concluding that eaters wouldn’t willingly reduce meat consumption without a compelling substitute. “We don’t want people to think differently about their food,” he explains. “We want to change the food.”

The popular assumption about consumers is they don’t want to change. That’s why new products are dialed in to be more meat-like than ever before, not just in taste and texture, but also in appearance and consumer process. The Impossible Burger remains pink until cooked, just like ground beef. Beyond Meat sells only to retailers that will place the product in meat cases. With these products, meat eaters don’t have to change summer grilling traditions or shopping habits; we can avoid the stigma of shopping for tofu.

This industry has grown rapidly in the last few years, thanks in large part to the PR offensives that these businesses have the money and influence to carry out. But plant-based meats aren’t new; they date as far back as the Tang dynasty in the 7th to 9th century. Chinese Buddhists have a long and enduring tradition of creating "mock" meat, like elaborately prepared wheat gluten carefully dimpled to resemble the skin of a plucked duck. You can still find these items on the shelves at Asian supermarkets today.

But there is no spokesperson for canned seitan. By contrast, today’s plant-based meats have captured the imagination and the dollars of celebrities, chefs, professional athletes and business giants, including the likes of Bill Gates and Shaquille O’Neal. Through social media campaigns, privately-funded research and trusted celebrity endorsements, business now controls the conversation on meat and its analogues.

In parts of the research community, though, the jury is still out on meat alternatives, and I understand why. We still don’t know what the environmental impact of lab-grown meat will be, or if it will ever be a scalable, cost-effective meat substitute. The Impossible Burger is pretty high in saturated fat and sodium compared to its 85 percent lean ground beef counterpart, and some scientists still have questions about "heme," its magic ingredient. Plant-based foods still rely largely on intensive conventional agriculture. And almost all modern meat alternatives are considered highly processed foods that definitely don’t pass the Michael Pollan ingredient test.

Are your feelings mixed yet?

Meat is multidimensional, especially now. Meat products vary from farm to farm, business to business, and the same goes for meat alternatives (just substitute lab for farm). As we start asking ourselves what counts as meat, and more importantly, what versions of meat fit our values, things get complicated.

As we start asking ourselves what counts as meat, and more importantly, what versions of meat fit our values, things get complicated.

We seem to agree that eating less industrially farmed meat is a generally good idea. There are a lot of ways to do that — some require significant thought and attention, others are just new products traded in for old ones. All plant-based foods are not better than all meat options. Strict labels like vegetarian and vegan don’t really capture the variety and complexity of strategies we might use to guide our eating decisions. If, as complex individuals, we find value in fine-tuning our identities, now is a great time to re-examine how we define the food we’re willing to eat, and how that food, in turn, defines us.


Hear Irene discuss the topic on WBUR's Radio Boston:

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Irene Li Twitter Food Columnist
Irene Li is The ARTery's food columnist. She operates Mei Mei Street Kitchen and Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston.

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