In the last 10 years, meat substitutes have come a long way. According to an NPR report, in the last year alone, over 100 new fake meat products have been introduced in the United States, including everything from “beef tips” to “orange chicken” and “pulled pork.” It’s multi-million dollar industry–but are meat substitutes really better for the planet, or for your health?
The wide-scale environmental and health impacts of industrially-produced meat products, like ground beef and hot dogs are serious. Deforestation, carbon monoxide, ammonia in the ground water, and, of course, the concerns about the humane treatment of animals are all pressing matters–but because meat substitutes have traditionally been weird-tasting, overly-chewy, or limited to cubes of flavorless, awful, GMO-laden tofus, few meat-eaters have even considered making the switch. Until recently, when fake meat manufacturers have upped their game, making more convincing, more tasty non-meat products. But they’re not exactly giving the environment (or your health) a leg up.
Quite honestly, more meaty-tasting meat substitutes means more processed, frozen, high-in-sodium, lab-made food products with large carbon footprints and health concerns of their own. Which means that simply swapping real meat for one of the hundreds of fake meats now available isn’t always the best choice. But when compared to, say, BPI’s now-famous “pink slime,” a combination of ammonia-washed meat “trimmings” essentially pulled off the factory floor, lean, protein-rich sprouted tofu, falafel, or wheat gluten starts to look a little more trust-worthy. Which could be part of the reason that the fake meat industry is beefing up–because commercially-produced meat products have become, to many, so unsavory. And with prominent writers like Mark Bittman coming out in favor of eating less meat, more and more non-vegetarians are regularly looking to replace animal proteins in their meals.
But for many meat-lovers, products like “lean beef trimmings” are still preferable to the fake stuff, if they fake stuff is a smelly Gardenburger circa 2002. Because, while the meat industry may be sketchy at times (see: attempts to use “downed” animals in sausages and hot dogs), seitan, tempeh, and tofu are just as unfamiliar and gross-seeming…unless they really, really look and taste like meat.
If converting omnivores, even just once a week, is the goal, then the fake meat industry is right on target. And for activist groups like FARM and PETA, that truly is the focus–not improved health or sustainability, but simply getting fewer people to eat animal products.
But even if more people are tempted to try a fake meat products, the environment isn’t going to be much better off. And if Americans continue to eat the way they do (tons of refined carbs, few fruits and veggies, not enough water, etc.), swapping fake burgers for real burgers isn’t going to do much for the obesity crisis, either.
Still, as a vegetarian, I can’t say that the convenience and improved texture of fake meat isn’t winning me over. Having a grocery aisle full of easy-to-use, protein-rich substitutes makes my lazy heart go pitter-patter as much as the next time-pressed herbivore. But I try not to fool myself–the four varieties of “veggie crumbles” I have to choose from aren’t saving the world.