The veggie burger paradox
By Will Coggin
As many homeowners are letting their grills cool after Memorial Day holiday BBQs, this summer there may be a new offering on the party menu: Fake meat.
Once derided as discs that taste like cardboard, veggie burgers have seen a recent resurgence. A number of national chains are testing plant-based offerings amid consumer interest.
Meanwhile, the fake meat manufacturer Beyond Meat had a successful launch on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this month.
The growth in fake meat has many primed to write about the success story.
But will they also be writing its obituary?
Fake meat’s formula for success — mimicking the taste and mouth-feel of real meat — I believe is based on chemical formulas that many health-conscious consumers would find hard to stomach.
Menu labels tell customers how many calories food has, but they don’t tell you what’s in it.
In the case of a burger from a cow, the ingredient is pretty obvious: Beef.
But in the case of the Impossible Burger-offered at major restaurants including Burger King and White Castle, the ingredient list is 21 items long, and includes methylcellulose and soy leghemoglobin.
Consider what these companies tell consumers. According to the CEO of Beyond Meat, the company’s manufacturers “just take the amino acids and the fats from another source and recreate those” with plants to mimic meat.
That sounds all natural. But his company’s fake chicken strips have 21 ingredients, including titanium dioxide. A frozen chicken strip imitation from a competitor has a whopping 53 ingredients.
Remember how Subway was slammed a few years ago for having a chemical in its bread, azodicarbonamide, that was also found in yoga mats? Consider that various fake meat products also contain propylene glycol (the primary ingredient in antifreeze), magnesium carbonate (used in flooring), and iron phosphate (used as a pesticide for slugs).
For shoppers who believe “you are what you eat,” that’s not welcome news.
Veggie burgers and their nugget and sausage counterparts don’t grow on vines. In order to make a mashup of soy or vegetables imitate meat, chemical additives are needed to help get the right mouthfeel and taste.
In other words, the veggie burger 2.0’s greatest feat is also its Achilles heel.
While consumers are interested in trying out meat mimics, they also want to eat less processed foods.
According to market research firm Mintel, about 60 percent of consumers believe the fewer ingredients a food product has, the healthier it is. And another recent survey found that “no artificial ingredients” and “no preservatives” were two of the top three claims driving food sales.
Contrast that with this: 39 percent of faux meat consumers say they eat the stuff to avoid processed foods.
Clearly, there’s a bridge between what consumers know and what they’re being told by marketing departments at fake meat companies, which cast their products as healthier alternatives to real meat.
On the one hand, government authorities say small amounts of additives are generally fine. But a lot of consumers either don’t quite trust that, or would rather avoid chemical additives anyway.
Fake meat companies are stuck — there’s no way currently to make veggie mashup taste like beef without added chemicals. Some newer startups are trying to grow meat from cells, but their efforts are also likely to run into consumers balking at the idea of “lab-grown Franken-meat.”
If “natural” ingredients drive your product choices, you can’t go wrong with steak, pork chop, or chicken — there’s just one ingredient. You can even satisfy your vegetarian friends with grilled corn and asparagus or a nice veggie kabob.
Summer cookouts, grilling and dinner parties are for celebrating — not fretting over the contents of mystery meat.
Will Coggin is managing director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility, protecting consumer choices and lobbying on behalf of the fast food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries.