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

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

Burger King’s Impossible Whopper with a side of fries. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

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 criticized Beyond and Impossible products, calling them 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’s still high calorie, greasy, and probably not a good idea to eat everyday.

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? There’s no perfectly agreed-upon meaning of processed foods, but the term can refer to any food that’s been modified — to preserve it, to enhance its flavor, to add nutrients, or to make plant proteins taste like a hamburger.

Both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger are, to be sure, produced in a factory with lots of different plant ingredients. But that word — “processed” — can obscure more than it clarifies.

“There’s this really confusing nomenclature going around right now, with this idea that we can classify food as being good or bad based on its degree of processing,” Ruth MacDonald, a nutrition scientist at Iowa State University told Wired. “And it makes no sense from a nutritional perspective, and it really makes no sense from a food science perspective either.”

Pasteurization is a form of processing. Adding supplemental vitamins, which has been lifesaving, is a form of processing. Yogurt is a highly processed food. While processing can make food unhealthy, not all processed foods are unhealthy. You have to look at the ingredients and at which processes in particular the food went through.

When it comes to the ingredients, the dozens listed in the Beyond and Impossible burgers are frequently cited as proof the products can’t be healthy. But even a salad can have lots of ingredients, and ingredient lists on products are often more a product of labelling laws than an objective measure of how many things go into the food.

This point has been made elegantly by Impossible Foods’ Rachel Konrad:

If we had to list the ingredients of beef the way we list the ingredients of beef alternatives, it wouldn’t look so good. The takeaway isn’t that beef is bad for you (scientists are still fighting over that one) but that counting ingredients isn’t a way to find an answer.

Another commonly raised concern is the specter of GMOs. The anti-GMO Center for Food Safety has campaigned against the Impossible Burger and many figures in the anti-GMO community have joined in.

The Beyond Burger, to be clear, contains no GMOs. The Impossible Burger uses modified soy and a special ingredient that is derived from a genetically modified plant: the “heme” that makes the burgers “bleed” comes from soybean roots, but Impossible Foods manufactures it from yeast in order to produce the quantities they need. This has been cleared by the FDA.

The team at Impossible Foods explained their decision to use modified soy rather than importing GMO-free soy by pointing at the environmental impact: genetically modified soy is grown in the US while GMO-free soy would have needed carbon-intensive importation from Brazil.

Moreover, there’s no good evidence that GMOs pose any health hazards. Billions of people around the world have been eating genetically modified crops for decades, with no harmful effects yet detected. For thousands of years before that, humans were genetically modifying crops through the slower process of selection for their favorites. Some naturally occurring plants are unhealthy for humans, or even deadly; some GMOs are denser with nutrients, require fewer pesticides, or are otherwise better for us. But most are just neutral. After extensive testing, the FDA has agreed Impossible Foods’ heme is fine.

That the new plant-based burgers are so processed and are suspected of containing GMOs leads right into the main criticism: that they’re not that healthy. And certainly, one shouldn’t mistake eating an Impossible Burger for munching on a salad. Plant-based meats don’t work that way.

But nutritionists who have conducted analyses have largely found that the meatless meat burgers are, well, fine — not any better for you than a beef burger but not worse, with the specific details depending on which health priorities you have. (The Impossible Burger has more sodium than a beef burger, but beef burgers are usually salted during preparation; the Impossible Burger has less fat and slightly fewer calories, but if you have it slathered with mayonnaise on a Whopper, you add that fat and those calories right back in.)

“If you’re wanting a nutritious, heart-healthy meal, you can and should eat vegetables and whole grains and fruits and all the other stuff that everyone knows they should be eating,” Ryan Mendelbaum wrote in Gizmodo on the plant-based burger health controversy.

A more serious charge is that these products are actively hazardous to your health. A May press release by the advocacy group Moms Across America, for example, got attention by claiming that Impossible Burgers tested positive for an herbicide called glyphosate. Impossible Foods pointed out immediately that the “positive test” found rates “almost 1,000 times lower than the no-significant-risk level for glyphosate ingestion (1,100 micrograms per day) set by California Prop 65.” And California sets some of the most stringent guidelines in the world; guidelines from the World Health Organization and the EPA say that even higher daily rates are safe.

Importantly, the environmental benefits of the Beyond and Impossible Burgers have held up under the flurry of new scrutiny. Plant-based meats really do emit much less CO2 and other greenhouse gases than meat does, use less water, and use less land. The fact is that lots of people want, well, a burger. So why not offer them a burger that’s good for the environment, good for animals, and positioned to address huge problems with our food system?

The fakeness of fake meat

Another component of the backlash isn’t about health at all. Instead, it’s about a vague sense that there’s something noble about eating dead animals that’s simply absent when eating plant-based, factory-assembled inventions.

In a Heated piece, Danielle LaPrise tells the story of how her community came together to slaughter a pig: “With every animal dispatched, every crop harvested,” she writes, “I realized that our time on earth is temporary, and everything on it is a gift. I could plant seeds or raise animals from birth, care for them, feed them, and then later I would depend on them to nourish and sustain me.” Of meatless meat, she writes, “these foods will never succeed in mimicking the humbling intimacy from meals where the animal’s death is deeply felt.”

But that is not how most Americans eat meat. Over 99 percent of meat produced for consumption in the United States comes from animals raised on factory farms, where they often never see daylight and don’t have enough space to turn around. Most pigs are not shot at the end of a long life by a happy collection of neighbors, but killed on an assembly line that can kill hundreds of pigs per minute. (And the situation is about to get even worse for pigs.)

Our food system isn’t natural. It hasn’t been natural for a very long time. Critiques that plant-based meat fails to promote the joy, gratitude, and connectedness of raising your own pig and then communally slaughtering it with your neighbors aren’t wrong, exactly — but they have very little to say to the typical American.

When niche goes mainstream

The Impossible Burger started out as a niche product in upscale restaurants. Coverage was almost entirely positive: commentators hailed that a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan was adding it to the menu. When it came to Silicon Valley, local papers eagerly reported that it’d be served in Palo Alto “with sun-dried tomatoes, cavolo nero (or lacinato kale) and a sun-dried tomatoes mayonnaise on a poppy seed bun.”

But the Impossible Burger is now in Burger King. And that’s a lot less appealing for its past boosters.

As the Breakthrough Institute’s Trembath argues, the mainstreaming of meatless meat coincided with when the food world turned on the burger. Food critics who’d praised it now complained about it.

“I can’t help but notice,” Trembath wrote in an analysis of the plant-based meat backlash, “that when fake meat was the purview of food utopians and visionary chefs, thought leaders were enthusiastically in favor of it. But as soon as fake meat hit the plastic trays at Burger King, they were fretting about how over-processed it was.”

Did the Impossible Burger get more processed? Hardly. If anything, it looks better now that Impossible Foods has secured the FDA’s stamp of approval on the signature ingredient, heme.

But what the burger did become was mass produced. From one restaurant in 2016, the Impossible Burger is now available in more than 10,000 locations worldwide.

Food historian Rachel Laudan argues, “It is easy for ultra-processed to mean ‘industrially processed,’ ‘low class,’ or ‘not to my taste.’ Soft drinks are ultra-processed, wine not. Snack cakes are ultra-processed, home made cakes not.” And the Impossible Burger, for a time, was not considered ultra-processed, enjoying, we could say, the “wine exception.”

There’s a lot wrong with our food system and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. But opposing all mass-market, mass-produced food is elitist and classist — and in this particular case, it’s silly, too.

Three of the biggest harms caused by our current food system are the harms to the environment, to public health through antibiotic resistance, and to animals through factory farming. In order to address all of those, plant-based or lab-produced alternatives to meat must be mass-produced. And if we’re uncomfortable with the fact of mass-production itself then we can’t fix any of the problems it’s currently causing.

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