This piece has been updated to reflect recent developments.
Any vegan can tell you that meat substitutes aren’t new. A quick trip to the health food store or to Chinatown has turned up everything from textured vegetable protein to mock duck for generations. So why all the buzz around the arrival of new plant-based burgers and fake “meat”? Maybe because they’re the technological promise of preserving our planet by disrupting meat production, or, because they’re a terrifying adventure in science fiction dining. Really, it depends on who you ask.
We’re still figuring out what to call them, but meat substitutes — with commercial names like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat — can be derived from plant protein or from cells grown in labs, and are suddenly ubiquitous. So much so that nearly every top fast food chain is now serving a plant-derived fake meat burger. Vegetarian burger options have been available on the fast food scene for some time (and have always been more widely available outside of the US), but they’ve flown mostly under the radar. Yet, Burger King, McDonald’s, Qdoba and the like are now taking serious pride in their meatless Whoppers, Big Macs and more. Something that, if asked a decade ago, many of us would have sworn was “impossible.”
If you’re late to the fake meat/plant-based meat party — or “clean meat,” as the industry prefers to be dubbed — here’s a catch-up. There’s a bunch going on here, and none of it is simple.
What are Plant-Based Meats?
For a reducetarian — a person trying to eat less meat — it’s a pretty cool time to be alive. Even if you’re suspicious of the methodology, makers of plant-based meat products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are scrambling to make a perfect replica of a burger (and other meats) so you don’t have to give up on that meaty flavor you have come to expect and love. These are plant-based alternatives, not meat cells grown in petri dishes.
Whether you’re keeping it old school with plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Meat, made with pea plant protein and dyed with beet juice, or eating an Impossible burger whose key ingredient has been genetically engineered with yeast, bacteria and algae to mimic meat, you’ve got options. They’re flooding the market and investors are eager to be a part of the trend.
What is Plant-Based Heme?
The Impossible burger uses a leghemoglobin “heme” protein that is supposed to imitate the bloodiness of a good old-fashioned beef burger. The alt burger creators are daring eaters to tell the difference between their burger and its four-legged alter ego. (Think Pepsi Challenge, but in 2019.) The pitch has the potential for brilliance: if the likeness of meat is achieved, then meat eaters will be willing to swap out their burger for something burger-akin. If they can’t tell the difference, and they gobble them up, we could dramatically reduce the amount of meat being eaten. This would reduce carbon emissions and animal cruelty, simply by providing a plant-based meat alternative and hoping no one misses their real burgers.
But critics like Friends of the Earth have expressed doubt about the safety of products like heme because it’s genetically modified, and just as with other genetic modifications, there is risk of environmental contamination and the loss of control of the engineered organisms. Consumer Reports cautions that “though humans have eaten soy for centuries, we haven’t eaten soy leghemoglobin before. And CR’s scientists advise caution when introducing anything new into the food supply.” The food has gone to market with minimal oversight from the FDA,…