Meatless meat is becoming mainstream — and it’s sparking a backlash

The growing pushback against Impossible and Beyond burgers in fast-food chains, explained


By Kelsey Piper, Vox

Oct 7, 2019


When the Impossible Burger launched quietly in upscale restaurants a few years ago, the coverage was mostly positive, with some reviewers even calling it the future of meat.


Now, Impossible products have hit Qdoba, Burger King, and supermarkets. Another plant-based meat company, Beyond Meat, is featured in Carl’s Jr, Subway, and now McDonald’s. It’s a sign that the new wave of meatless meat is approaching mainstream status — an encouraging development if you care about changing our meat-centric food system.


But if the emergence of meatless meat a few years ago was hailed unanimously as a good thing, the response to its mainstreaming has been tinged with skepticism. The adoption of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products by fast-food chains hasn’t exactly been welcomed in some quarters, even among those you would think would be more supportive of this development.


Call it the backlash against the fast rise of meatless meat.


For instance, the CEO of Whole Foods and the CEO of Chipotle both announced they would pass on Beyond and Impossible products, noting that the products are too highly processed. Food writer and former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who has long called on Americans to eat less meat, criticized “the new higher-tech vegan meats” for not addressing “resource use and hyperprocessing” (though he has hailed them in the past). His website, Heated, has also given plant-based meats some favorable coverage, but recently wrote nostalgically that “not so long ago ... Veggie burgers didn’t masquerade as something they weren’t.” Meanwhile, numerous articles have questioned the health impacts of the products.


To be sure, the new plant-based burgers have gotten a lot of positive coverage, too — and some pragmatic reviews more focused on describing their taste (pretty meaty, though some reviewers insist they can still tell the difference). But this is a nascent industry, and any pushback can have an impact.


There’s certainly some truth to the critiques. The Beyond and Impossible burgers aren’t exactly health food (something I’ve written about previously), though they’re not more unhealthy than the meat products they’re displacing. The Impossible Whopper might help save the planet, but it won’t save you from all the usual problems with subsisting on hamburgers.


But the critiques go further than just observing that fast food isn’t health food. Often, critics end up voicing disdain for the whole process of producing food at scale in the way it has to be produced to feed hundreds of millions of people. In that way, as the Breakthrough Institute’s Alex Trembath has argued, the plant-based meat backlash reflects how much classism and elitism creep into our national conversations about our food system — and how they might stand in the way of fixing it.


Plant-based meat has the potential to be great for the world. It can end factory farming, be more sustainable, address global warming, and offer a way to feed a growing middle class its favorite foods without destroying the planet along the way. As it matures as an industry, its offerings can get cheaper, healthier, and more varied, too.


But for plant-based food to change the world requires producing huge quantities of it and selling it where consumers will want to buy it. And that, in turn, requires confronting the reality that consumers like fast food and that there’s real value in providing them with fast food that’s better for the world. The backlash to plant-based meat, when you look at it closely, is a backlash against our food system in general — mistakenly directed at one of the more promising efforts to make it a little bit better.


Plant-based meat myths, debunked


There have been many critiques leveled at plant-based foods. They all boil down to four broad criticisms: 1) they are highly processed; 2) they contain GMOs; 3) they’re not that healthy — or even hazardous to your health; and 4) they’re aesthetically objectionable as “fake” food.


Plant-based burgers, many critics argue, are “ultra-processed junk foods.” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey warned customers “they are super, highly processed foods.” Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said, “We have spoken to those folks and unfortunately it wouldn’t fit in our ‘food with integrity’ principles because of the processing.”


What does “processed” even mean? ...


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